Northwestern has to regroup and play a key game against Minnesota on Wednesday. The game will have a lot of impact on the standings in the Big Ten and also both team's NCAA Tournament hopes. With that in mind I brought in Steve from the Minnesota blog From The Barn to talk about the Golden Gophers basketball team.
5 Questions with From The Barn
Note: Because of the late-breaking news about Al Nolen's foot injury there is an extra question at the end. So make sure you check out number six.
CCB: Minnesota started the season strong and then lost to Virginia, what happened in that game?
FTB: Virginia exposed the Gopher three-point defense, which is likely their biggest weakness. Minnesota's defense revolves around taking away basically any inside presence for the other team, which works quite well. Unfortunately, that means doubling up on the post when the ball comes inside, which leaves perimeter shooters pretty open. The Gophers tend to gamble that teams won't make the majority of their three pointers, which has been the case for much of the season. Virginia, however, was absolutely on fire and hit 10 of their 13 attempts from deep.
Couple the hot shooting with the fact that we were missing Al Nolen to an injury and the team was basically in disarray. Nolen is likely the best defender on the team and instrumental in helping the offense run. Without him to calm things down, the team turned to hurried shots to claw back into the game, which ended up sealing their fate even quicker. It was a bad loss to a mediocre team at home and it certainly exposed a glaring weakness in the Minnesota defense.
CCB: There was some turmoil in the middle of the season around Trevor Mbakwe and Devoe Joseph, but it appears those issues have both been resolved, do you think the program is done with outside distractions? How has the team done with handling those problems?
FTB: I guess I wouldn't say they've been "resolved," but they've become less of a distraction than they were over the past few months. If it's not one thing with this team then it's another, and they seem to find drama at the most inopportune times. Mbakwe has been a lightning rod for controversy and it'll be a miracle if we finish the season without him getting into any further trouble (half joking). Hopefully his recent restraining order violation doesn't blow up into something more, but at this point the drama seems to be on the downturn.
You'd like to think that the program is done with the distractions, but it's always hard to tell, especially with the characters that we tend to employ on this team. Getting Joseph out of the picture went a long ways towards cleaning up the drama. It was obvious he wasn't happy here this season, and I actually think the team is better with him elsewhere since he won't be polluting the locker room with selfish antics. Tubby Smith is a no-nonsense type of guy and his old school way of running the team isn't for everyone. I think for the most part the team respects him, but when you get a guy like Joseph who is out for himself it's hard to make him happy, and he was pretty vocal about it.
CCB: Blake Hoffarber has always been a good player, but this season he seems to be taking it to another level. What's the difference with him?
FTB: Hoffarber's play this year is a big reason the team is where it's at, record-wise. He's always been an amazing shooter, but teams last year figured out that you could just drape a defender on him and pretty much take him out of the game. He still isn't great at getting himself open, so that strategy can still work. However, he's shown the ability this year to have amazing court vision and is probably the best passer on the team. When he's not able to get an open three-point attempt, he's begun to drive the lane and either toss up a floater or find a way to distribute the ball. He's definitely made himself a much more versatile, dangerous player this season and, though he's the only legitimate shooting threat on the team, he is no longer a one-dimensional player.
CCB: How glad are you to have Mbakwe on the team? He's been a double-double machine it seems.
FTB: The addition of Mbakwe this season has taken this team to a new level of intensity. I honestly can't remember the last time Minnesota had a guy who was so aggressive and physical, and it really adds a new element on the court. Mbakwe is one of the most physical players in the conference and defenses haven't had much success in matching up with him in the paint this season. He outmuscles almost everybody and pulls down rebound after rebound. Not only that, his incredible leaping ability makes him a threat to block a shot virtually every time someone drives the lane. His post game could be a little cleaner, but the ability to be near the basket allows him to clean up misses and get lots of second-chance points. It's unfortunate that we didn't have him last year, as his game would have been a nice addition to an already talented squad.
CCB: How confident are you about this game? About making the NCAA Tournament? Could this be one of those "deciding" ones come Selection Sunday?
FTB: I'm more confident in the win due to the fact that it's at home. The 1-3-1 zone seems to be Minnesota's kryptonite and I'm afraid that it'll really stall out the Gopher offense as they haven't seen much of it this year. They don't have a very strong half-court offense to begin with, and if Nolen is out with an injury he suffered against Michigan they could be in real trouble. John Shurna also presents a matchup problem for the Gophers, who have a hard time guarding bigs who can step out and shoot. Though I think the Gophers will probably win, but Northwestern could steal one on the road if they can force Minnesota out of their comfort zone on offense.
As far as the NCAA tournament goes, I definitely see Minnesota playing in March. They've had good wins this season including a recent victory over Purdue, so their resume is far from weak. A loss to Northwestern wouldn't be glaring by any means, but it's definitely one you want to win for the sake of keeping momentum and moving up the conference standings. It's unclear to me if the Wildcats will make a push towards the postseason, but they definitely aren't a team to look past. Any win you can get in this conference is huge, no matter if you're at home or on the road.
Bonus question: Can you tell us what the injury to Nolen means for Minnesota?
FTB: The Nolen injury is devastating for the Gophers for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Nolen is arguably the best player, top-to-bottom, on the team. He is the only legitimate point guard and by far the team's best defender. He's one of the only guys on the team that has the ability to penetrate and, while he doesn't always finish, he is adept at pushing and getting to the line. On defense, he is a lockdown defender that can take pretty much anyone out of the game and is always a threat to force a turnover. On top of all that, he is the team's senior leader and has provided the glue to squad all season long. When he is not on the court, you're usually left wishing he was.
What this means going forward is that Minnesota will have to mix and match at point guard. Hoffarber, an underrated passer to begin with but far from a traditional point guard, will likely get a majority of the time while freshman guards Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin will split the rest of the duties. Both freshman are extremely unproven and, given the intensity of the Big Ten, might be in over their heads when crunch time hits. Nolen was a seasoned veteran and it's hard to fake game experience. Plugging in guys to one of the most important positions on the floor who have never held the job is a scary proposition; Northwestern will be the first test.
Though I'm probably preaching to the choir, it's yet another blow for a Gopher team that has faced inordinate amounts of adversity the last couple of years. Like I said, if it's not one thing than it's another. Gopher Nation will continue to wonder what the next blow will be.
A big thanks to Steve for answering these questions. Be sure to catch the game on Wednesday night. It seems like the Wildcats could be a good match up and are catching the Gophers at an ideal moment to get a key road victory.
You can also catch my answers to their questions about Northwestern here.