With the big Minnesota vs. Northwestern game tonight I reached out to From The Barn to get some insight into the Gophers. JF was happy to provide me with some interesting notes about Tubby Smith's team. His answers are below and you can check out mine about Northwestern here.
1) CCB: Northwestern always seems to play terribly against Ohio State and Minnesota. What is the Gophers' secret?
FTB: Terrible, really? You should give NU a little credit. Northwestern knocked off a highly ranked Minnesota team in Evanston last season just days after Minnesota's first win in decades at Wisconsin. The Gophers did beat Northwestern two other times last season, in Minneapolis and at the Big Ten tournament, but if you ask most Gopher fans, they are far from impressed by their team's performances against NU.
The biggest advantage that Minnesota (and I think I can safely speak of Ohio State as well) has is that NU's defense leaves a lot of space for jump shooting teams. When the Gophers have to rely on dribble penetration to create shots the offense becomes very stagnant. Against NU, if they are successfully able get a shot off, which is no small task with the length of Jeremy Nash et. al. on the perimeter, that shot is usually open.
2) CCB: Minnesota is one of the best defenses in the country according to Pomeroy. What makes their defense tick?
FTB: Minnesota's defensive success is predicated upon a swarming full court zone press in which the Gophers trap the ball in one of the corners just after the inbounds pass or in the corner between the sideline and center court just after the offense brings the ball into the offensive half-court. The sideline and the baseline/center court line function as a defender, allowing only two Gophers to cut off any escape.
Northwestern may be catching the Gophers at just the right time. Al Nolen, Minnesota's best perimeter defender, will be out for his second straight game to academic ineligibility pending an appeal with the NCAA. His main duty on the press is to slow down the ball handler and drive him to the corner so another defender can come in to steal the ball. The Gopher press was anemic against Indiana and non-existent against Michigan State. Tubby Smith is reluctant to press on the road and against Michigan State with their exceptional speed, but it is anybody's guess if it will reappear on Tuesday.
3) CCB: While two losses to Michigan State are nothing to worry about, what about the Indiana loss in between? Has something gone wrong? Or is it just bad luck?
The loss to Indiana was probably the product of its place in the schedule between the two Michigan State games. The Gophers nearly pulled off the big upset in East Lansing, and were probably looking ahead. The likely suspension of Al Nolen was already known to the team as well, and with the way Nolen played in that game, it would be hard to argue that it didn't affect him. The combination of a classic trap game and off the court distraction was just too much to overcome. A lot of people were ready to write off the season after that Indiana loss, but Minnesota's near upset hopefully pulled a few people back off the ledge.
4) CCB: Lawrence Westbrook is an NU killer. Who is someone else to worry about on the Minnesota roster?
FTB: Lawrence Westbrook excels against NU because of his ability to drive and shoot from anywhere on the court. He is one of only two Gophers with a real mid-range game, which allows him to hit shots when he gets the ball in the gaps of the 1-3-1 zone or to drive into those gaps and create his own shot. Devoe Joseph has a similar skill set to Westbrook and has been playing well while filling in for Al Nolen, though he struggled against NU in the past. Blake Hoffarber, the Big Ten's best three point shooter should have plenty of opportunities to take and make open shots, especially if Northwestern is slow to rotate on the defensive end. The most intriguing player for the Gophers is Rodney Williams, one of the best leapers in the country. If the Gophers can create a mismatch with the much smaller Michael Thompson, there should be a barrage of lob passes.
5) CCB: Is Tuesday's game between Minnesota and Northwestern an NCAA Tournament elimination game? What are Minnesota's chances of making the tournament?
I'm reluctant to declare January games as must-wins, but this game is crucial to Minnesota's tournament chances. The Gophers need to win at least ten Big Ten games to have a realistic shot at the tournament. If they win any fewer, they would need to make a serious move in the Big Ten tournament, and even then they would still be squarely on the bubble. If they don't sweep NU, they will be in serious trouble.
FTB: I dread Northwestern every year, and tomorrow is no exception. The close loss against Michigan State likely was the straw that broke the Gophers' back. I expect them to come out flat, battle back valiantly, but run out of gas at the end and lose by a point or two.
A big thanks to From The Barn. Check the game out tonight on Big Ten Network at 8 p.m.