Excitement is back. How can you tell? People are finally starting to believe that this Gopher team can win Big Ten games. There is excited talk of The Barn being packed tonight in the message boards, on twitter, on talk radio, and in the papers. The Star Tribune has multiple writers coming up with things to write about to meet the demand of the fan base. And new football coach PJ Fleck will be at Williams Arena this evening to help energize the crowd.
How is Richard Pitino handling it? Same as always. Yesterday during the media availability he talked about not wanting to be ranked (which will happen if they beat Ohio State this evening) because he wants his players to keep their edge. Focusing on the game plan day by day was the message from Pitino to his players and bigs Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate echoed that moments later.
Ohio State is 10-5 and if you simply look at the 10-3 non-league record, the 0-2 Big Ten mark, you think “should be a W”. At Williams Arena Minnesota should win. They are the favorites and this is a game that a good team records as a victory. That said the Buckeyes are a tough out. Their losses to Purdue and Virginia where by a single point. The loss to Illinois on the road was by two scores, the loss to Florida Atlantic was in overtime, and they lost to UCLA by 13.
That Matta’s team has beaten UCONN and Providence and now they want Big Ten victory number one. Five Ohio State players average in double figures and 6-foot-4 junior power forward Jae’Sean Tate is having a solid year. Also, Ohio State has been kicking Gopher ass for as long as we can remember. That said this is a Buckeye team that missed the NCAAs for the first time in eight years last year and had four freshman leave the team.
Gopher Illustrated was born in 2004. In that time span Ohio State has won 19 of the last 25 games against the Gophers including 12 of the last 13 games. Minnesota has lost six in a row to the Buckeyes and the last three games have been major beatdowns (78-63, 77-52, and 82-58). Why is Minnesota taking this game very seriously? They haven’t been able to compete with the Buckeyes for most of the fan website era.
Ohio State does not shoot the ball well from the perimeter (they make less than a third). Tate leads the team with 14.1 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, but he takes less than a trey a contest because he shoots under 20 percent from the arc. Tate is also a poor free throw shooter (58 percent).
Six-foot-5 talented sophomore lead guard JaQuan Lyle is a strong playmaker at 11.5 points and 5.6 assists a game but he’s a 26 percent shooter at the arc who takes only 2-3 a contest. Six-foot-11 junior center Trevor Thompson has a nice touch around the basket and at the foul line (78 percent) but he is not a three point threat. Reserve wings CJ Jackson and Andre Wesson are young and have struggled with both shooting in the lower 20th percentile from distance.
Who does Minnesota need to locate? Second leading scorer Marc Loving is a 6-foot-7, 220 pound senior wing scoring 11.7 a game and he’s a face-up weapon Minnesota needs to locate (shoots near 36 percent on his 4-5 three-point attempts a contest). Junior shooting guard Kam Williams takes about 60 percent of his shots at the arc where he’s made 41 percent leading to his 10.7 points a game. Reserve freshman center Micah Potter also takes a couple threes a game where he has made 9 of 20.
Outside of Alvin Ellis and Tum Tum Nairns going against all mathematical odds and making multiple treys two weeks ago, the Gophers have locked down teams at the arc. They are one of the best three point defending teams in the nation allowing only 28 percent of opposing threes to go through the net successfully. On average teams make 6 of 22 shots at the arc against Minnesota each game.
Frustrated with Minnesota’s free throw shooting (68.9 percent)? Ohio State is even worse. They’ve made only 67 percent for the season with Tate’s struggles being the main reason (Potter and Wesson are poor too).
The Buckeyes will use an eight man rotation leaning heavily on the starters Williams, Lyle, Tate, Loving, and Thompson with Potter coming in and playing for Thompson in the post. Keita Bates-Diop scoring 12 a game last year but has missed six games and will miss the rest of the season. His 6-foot-7 experienced presence will be missed.
Jordan Murphy is 6-foot-6 and tonight he will be two inches taller than his man Jae’Sean Tate. Tate has worn down over the years as an undersized big but the season is still early and Jae’Sean has played well. Tate and Murphy will be an excellent physical battle inside as they do a lot of similar things. Tate has the better numbers but he’s also had more opportunity.
Inside Reggie Lynch is coming off two excellent games against Purdue and Northwestern. Those games were on the road, now he’s back home where fans remember him struggling terribly vs Michigan State and Arkansas State. The Lynch that played the last two contests and for most of the year should be able to deal with Thompson who is equally as foul prone as Lynch (Thompson has 48 fouls in 317 minutes, Lynch 47 in 308). The player that can stay on the floor will likely be the player giving his team the edge. Konate and Potter are adequate back-ups for each team.
Lyle is so big and strong that Richard Pitino may get creative defensively with him. You could see Akeem Springs guarding Lyle from a physical perspective, Amir Coffey because of his great length, and they can use the Nate Mason ball pressure (I’m hesitant to say Dupree McBrayer because physically that’s a bad match-up strength wise and Dupree has to be more disciplined).
Don’t be fooled by Lyle’s size, he can also turn the corner with a good burst. There is a chance that Minnesota uses a bit of zone and I surely expect them to play for the attack considering Lyle’s three point struggles. That could lead to some different rules off ball screens as well as screens away from the ball. Whichever Gopher guard is on Williams needs to be the player keeping a hand up and fighting over screens to contest a potential shot quickly.
Ohio State has to figure out how to defend McBrayer and Mason. Zones are not a good thing to use against Minnesota as the Gophers are usually excellent with rapid ball movement around the perimeter, too dangerous attacking a rotating defense after a reversal or skip, and the post to post passes are high level. Northwestern used very little zone against Minnesota and it will be interesting to see what Thad Matta does to slow down the Gopher guards.
The Marc Loving versus Amir Coffey battle may be the most interesting. Loving is good at creating off the dribble plus he’s hitting feet set threes at a good rate. Most teams don’t have a player with the foot speed and length to contest his shots consistently but Minnesota does with Coffey. Loving is the best all around scoring option in terms of creation but he can disappear. With Coffey being superb in transition and looking better hitting with feet set, an inconsistent defender like Loving is quite inviting. Also watch Michael Hurt who hit a big shot for the Gophers late against Northwestern. His coach praised him heavily in the postgame locker room and in yesterday’s media chat.
I’m well aware that Ohio State played UCLA, Purdue, Illinois, and Virginia tough. I feel like tonight will be a battle. That said I really like Minnesota’s match-ups vs the Buckeyes outside of Lyle’s strength versus the Gopher guards. I feel like the Gophers can limit Loving and Williams at the arc like they have others, I think Murphy and Lynch will match Tate and Thompson, and I don’t believe that Ohio State will defend Minnesota as well as they have some other teams. I like Minnesota to win without going to the final buzzer tonight.
Minnesota 77 Ohio State 70.