Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big Ten Tournament - Day One Preview

The Gophers begin their drive to a potential NCAA Tournament berth Thursday against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. The Gophers fell to the eighth seed after losing at home to Michigan in the regular season finale last Saturday, while the Wildcats could not take care of business at Ohio State, falling into the ninth spot and probably missing out on a first-ever NCAA bid.

This game is the third meeting of the two teams, with each squad winning on its home floor. In the first meeting on January 18, the Gophers came in 16-1 and fresh off a miracle win at Wisconsin three nights earlier. After a decent first half in which Minnesota led 34-31, they completely collapsed under a barrage of three-pointers launched by Craig Moore. The senior's 6-9 shooting made him the game's high scorer at 22 points, and the Wildcats used a 43-31 second half run to win 74-65. The Northwestern victory salvaged an 0-4 Big Ten start (highlighted by wins at Michigan State and Purdue) and led the Cats to a middle of the pack performance in the Big Ten until the very end. The loss sent the Gophers into a 5-8 tailspin to close out the season.

The second meeting on February 22 was perhaps the Gophers' finest of the season. Minnesota held Northwestern to 30% shooting (including just 6-19 from beyond the arc), 18 first half points, and doubled the Cats up on the glass in a 72-45 victory at Williams Arena. In this game the Gophers had a balanced scoring attack and shot over 50% from the floor. It was also one of the Gophers' best defensive efforts of the season.

In order to win on Thursday, Minnesota absolutely needs to shut down Northwestern's perimeter shooters. Craig Moore lit them up for 22 in Evanston, but only had three in the second meeting; Kevin Coble had 20 the first meeting and only five in Minneapolis. There is absolutely no reason to believe the Gophers will not dominate again in the paint, as this does not fit Northwestern coach Bill Carmody's "Princeton-style" offense of working the shot clock to eventually get an open jumper.

Minnesota also absolutely needs to win this game to have any shot at the NCAA Tournament. They're on the bubble among bubble teams, and one more conference win will only help their cause. Of course, by virtue of finishing eighth, they get the opportunity to take a third shot at Michigan State if they can get by Northwestern. The road to the tournament will certainly not be easy.

Predictions for Day One of the Big Ten Tournament:
  • Penn State big over Indiana
  • Michigan over Iowa in a game that is close for 35 minutes before the Wolverines close it out
  • Minnesota over Northwestern in a squeaker

On Friday, we'll preview Day Two of the Big Ten Tournament and look at the first round WCHA match ups.

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