If Richmond was the Gophers’ first big test, today against No. 9 Syracuse represents the first MASSIVE test.
In the wise words of Elliott Eliason: “It’s a little more than a test, man, that’s a great team, year-in and year-out. It’s always fun to measure yourself against someone like that. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
So Eliason has already mastered island-speak and the Gophers are keeping it real.
Luckily for the big man, he will have a little more help in the frontcourt than he did on Thursday vs. Wofford. Expect power forward Joey King to play after practicing the last two days. There is still some pain associated with the injury, but as Pitino has pointed out, King is one of the toughest players on the team.
Will we know everything about Minnesota afterward? No, certainly not. But the game will provide a good measuring stick against one of the nation’s best. If it’s a blowout, well, lots of work to be done before January rolls around. If they keep it close or (gasp) win, well, there’s still lots of work to be done before January rolls around. But of course, it would be a major accomplishment.
The Gophers have done a pretty good job of remaining steady through the early non-conference slate (with the minor exception of the Coastal Carolina game), a trait that would serve them well here, where they will be playing three games in three days no matter what.
Some notes on Syracuse:
- Kenpom.com predicts that the Gophers will win a close one, 67-66. Wha? Check it out for yourself.
- CJ Fair roots the highly talented, highly athletic Orange frontcourt and will represent by far the toughest competitor that the Gophers have seen this season. The ACC preseason player of the year (CQ) could be in the NBA right now, but instead, chose to forego the draft and spend another season torturing teams like the Gophers. Through four games, the versatile 6-8 forward with a good mid-range shot is averaging 18 points and 5.5 rebounds a game and will be trouble for Minnesota’s dreams of scoring in the post.
- The Orange’s frontcourt depth situation couldn’t be more different from the Gophers’. Syracuse has three centers with different skills to throw out at any time. There’s Rakeem Christmas, maybe the best all-around, Baye Mossa Keita, the most reliable on defense and DaJuan Coleman, considered the best offensive center. That means plenty of challenges for Eliason and King when the Gophers are forced to plug him into that spot.
- Syracuse turns teams over at a frightening rate. Nabbing the ball in 26.8 percent of opponents’ possessions, the Orange is the sixth best in the nation in that aspect of its defense. Correspondingly, Syracuse has the best steal percentage in the country.
- Watch out for the 2-3 zone. It shouldn’t give the Gophers the same nightmares it would have a year ago, because Minnesota has already looked much better when facing zone defenses (even a 1-3-1 briefly in the Wofford game!) Syracuse executes theirs very well, and has also been very good at defending the three. But the Gophers have got to either break through the 2-3 or get hot from the outside if they’re to challenge the Orange.
- Talented as they are, Syracuse isn’t air-tight, nearly losing to St. Francis last week, but recovering for a 56-50 win. Fair had an off-game in that one, scoring seven points and grabbing six rebounds. Containing him is a big task, but if the Gophers could achieve similar results by doing so, it’s probably on their agenda.
- Minnesota has been in the Aloha State since Friday evening. “I think the biggest thing we’ve got to do as you get out there --here come all the distractions. It’s unbelievable when you get there. It’s just a challenge. You’ve got to fight more mentally some issues than physically. And you’ve also got three games in three days regardless of what happens. So you’ve got to be smart in the way that you handle shootarounds, the way that you handle film.