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GI preview's tonights Minnesota/UT-Arlington contest

Tonight at Williams Arena, Minnesota takes on Texas-Arlington who will likely be one of their toughest opponents of the non-conference season.

The Storyline

By now you’ve heard about how the Mavericks are the Sun Belt Preseason pick to win the league, you recall them beating Memphis and Ohio State last year, and they bring back their top six players.

There is more to it than that.  The Mavericks also run a different style of offense and they do it quite well plus they have decent size up front and quite experienced in the backcourt.  The Mavericks are also coming off a big win over Texas Southern 89-82 (Texas Southern is the SWAC preseason favorite) and 6-foot-9, 230 pound Kevin Harvey was about to be Sun Belt player of the year last season (18 points, 9.8 rebounds per game) but he tore his ACL.

Is Harvey back to full strength already?  Yes and no.  His minutes were limited to 21 in the first game, he came off the bench and shot just 4-11 from the field missing all six of his shots at the arc.  Harvey did make all eight of his foul shots and was a monster on the glass.  A return game of 16 and 11 is pretty good although the minutes were limited. 

How big of a threat are the Mavericks to pull the upset really?  I would say they have  a chance but I don’t think that people should start betting on them straight up to win this.  They still lost seven Sun Belt games with this team a year ago and while Harvey’s numbers looked good he’s not yet where he was a year ago before the injury (think Trevor Mbakwe coming back from his injury as a senior, still good but not quite what he would be two years after the injury).

Also, we will get into this later in the match-ups, but while the Mavs are 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-9 up front starting out and 6-foot-9 and 7-foot-1 off the bench, they still start three guys 6-foot-2 and under.  Minnesota, who beat UL-Lafayette by a dozen in the opener, used their length to bother the Ragin Cajuns into 18 turnovers and built the lead to 24 before Richard Pitino brought the starters out.

The Numbers

Continuing with the size chatter the Mavericks will use preseason all league junior Erick Neal (5-ft-10, 155 pounds), senior Jalen Jones (6-ft-2, 209 pounds), and senior Drew Charles (6-ft-2, 193 pounds) in their starting backcourt.  Jones and Neal barely came off the floor in the opener (32 and 34 minutes respectively) while Charles was benched (not sure if it was injury or coach decision) in favor of 6-foot-2 junior Kaelon Wilson and 6-foot-5 Nebraska transfer Nathan Hawkins.

Most of the game the Mavs went with a line-up that had three guys 6-foot-2 or under on the floor.  It’s one thing to do that against Texas Southern, it’s another when those players have to defend 6-foot-5 Dupree McBrayer, 6-foot-8 Amir Coffey, 6-foto-4 Akeem Springs, and 6-foot-7 Michael Hurt. The Gophers have a serious size edge and all of those Gophers are skilled and move well laterally on defense so the younger, quicker player shouldn’t be a major cause for concern.

Arlington could not stop Twin Cities born Zach Lofton of Texas Southern (who was also a Gopher for four months, he was at a Texas juco, and he was at Illinois State so this is school four) who lit them up for 35 points on 12 of 25 shooting.  Four Texas Southern players scored in double figures and the Mavericks only turned their opponents over eight times while turning it over 14 times themselves.

Jalen Jones had an excellent game for UTA scoring his 23 points on 10 of 16 shooting including three makes at the arc.  Jones is a senior who rebounds well for a guard and scored 13 a game last year. Neal is the guy who makes this team go and he had 10 points, 8 assists, 6 boards, and 3 steals in game one (averaged 13 points and 6.2 assists last season).  Add in a still recovering Hervey’s 16 and 11 and the excellent shooting game from Kaelon Wilson (made all of his eight shots in 22 minutes for 19 points) and this team has some weapons.

We’ve talked about four key things for Minnesota all year: 1.) perimeter shooting, 2.) transition, 3.) half court defense, and 4) foul trouble.   Minnesota shot the ball well in the DePaul scrimmage and made ten treys (four different players had makes) against Lafayette but made only five jumpers against Bemidji State and missed their first dozen shots in the scrimmage. 

Against the Cajuns the Gophs forced 15 turnovers but allowed 20 offensive boards (many late in the game).  The turnovers help the running game, the lack of d-boards does not.  The Gopher halfcourt defense allowed only 32 percent shooting for the game against La-Lafayette (7-21 at the arc) which was good, but both Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy were in foul trouble a dozen minutes into the game and that must change. 

The Match-Ups

The Gopher scout team (Gaston Diedhiou, Darin Haugh, Stephon Sharp, Brady Rudrud, and somebody else) had their work cut out for them over the weekend trying to portray the UT-Arlington offense. The Mavs run a logo ball screen (named after the location on the floor where an NBA logo usually is) after a back screen and will scissor cut often off the high post. 

The Mavs have a lot of off ball movement and screens within their offensive sets so this is exactly the type of challenge the young Gopher halfcourt defense will need to come ahead on.  With Minnesota using an eight man rotation that has five underclassmen you can expect some mistakes in halfcourt D but they have to limit the amount to get this win. 

Erick Neal makes this Arlington team go.  He’s a fantastic passer who plays with a lot of juice.  Expect to see some no-look passes, a lot of ball handling with flare, and some post play celebration.  Neal’s crossover is as nasty as they come and with his speed he covers ground quickly plus the Maverick offense has cutters everywhere so once he turns the corner the ball could be moved anywhere.  Neal’s corner turn off a ball screen often leads to a quick feed to the rolling big. 

Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer are the guys that need to slow him down defensively and they will need help from their teammates working on ball screens.  The other way Mason and Dupree have to use their size edge to physically turn the corner and playmake and definitely move without the ball and take advantage of their size or screens of others to clear Neal.

The 100 percent healthy Kevin Hervey is really about a 6-foot-7 (listed about an inch or 1.5 too big) jumping jack with long arms, a motor, and perimeter touch.  What he is now in terms of mobility we aren’t sure yet.  That said, Jordan Murphy will see a lot of Hervey.  Jordan needs to be much better in position defense and defensive discipline than he’s been because he will have to move around a lot of screens and talk teammates through screens.

Hervey plays hard but not at full strength it will be tough for him to deal with the agile and fully healthy Murphy and Eric Curry.  Faith Pope (a 6-foot-8, 195 pound four man) actually started the last game at the four spot before Hervey came in and Pope played well with nine points and eight boards in 16 minutes. 

Six-foot-9, 245 pound senior Jorge Bilbao is the starting center for the Mavs and he will rarely come off the floor.  He doesn’t shoot much but he is a good defensive rebounder and excellent setting screens.  Reggie Lynch has to be at his best when it comes to being disciplined talking teammates through screens and helping over.   Last Friday a big reason the Gophers gave up so many offensive boards was because Lynch moves into defensive help position leaving his man and the backside didn’t rotate to cover Reggie’s guy.

Prediction

I think the last Vegas line was Minnesota by three.  Twin Cities local media thinks this could be the upset.  People in Arlington think they will get this win.  I go Lee Corso and say…”Not so fast my friend”. 

Sure Arlington will keep this close and have the lead at times, and yes they are experienced and talented.  But their top guy doesn’t seem to be at full strength, Minnesota has a serious size edge on the wing, and the Gophs are more talented.  I say the Gophs by four or five scores as long as they do a decent job in halfcourt defense.   This will be a challenging game but Minnesota shoots the late foul shots to push them ahead for good.

Minnesota 82 Texas-Arlington 72


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