Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bring on Sparty!

The Gophers' run to the NCAA Tournament continues after Thursday's 13-point victory over Northwestern. Minnesota had to overcome some tough Northwestern second-half defense before taking command down the stretch in a 66-53 victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. Next up for the Gophers is Big Ten regular season champion Michigan State on Friday morning.

Lawrence Westbrook paced the Gophers' scoring attack with 14 points, all coming in the second half. Devron Bostick added 11 off the bench, and Ralph Sampson III chipped in 9. Colton Iverson came up big in the post, adding two blocks in and three steals. Minnesota held Northwestern to under 33% shooting from the floor - despite 21 points from Kevin Coble (but only two of these came in the second half) - and forced 12 Wildcat turnovers. Reversing a trend from recent struggles, the Gophers took good care of the basketball in this game, with only 9 turnovers.

The Wildcats actually took a lead with just under eight minutes remaining on the heels of a 10-0 run. The Gophers had no answer to NU's 1-3-1 zone during this run. With Northwestern guard Jeremy Nash at the top of the zone, Minnesota went ice cold from the floor and did not take care of the ball, while Northwestern used the momentum to briefly take the lead. However, the Gophers took command down the stretch to seal the victory.

Elsewhere, in first round action (I went 3 for 3 in my predictions, by the way):
  • Michigan 73, Iowa 45 = The Wolverines shot almost 60% from the floor on this one, opening up a 21-point lead at the half and cruising to the victory. DeShawn Sims was enormous in this one for Michigan, with 27 points on 12-16 shooting.
  • Penn State 66, Indiana 51 = The Nittany Lions rode the scoring from Jamelle Cornley, David Jackson, and Stanley Pringle to send Indiana home with its worst season ever.

Next up for the Gophers is Michigan State. The Spartans took care of the Gophs in both meetings this year.

  • Game 1 - 12-31-08 at Minnesota = The Spartans got 24 points from Kalin Lucas, and completely dominated the glass for a 70-58 victory at Williams Arena. The Gophers came into the game 12-0, but were almost doubled-up on rebounding 41-22 (16-7 on the offensive glass). Michigan State won despite shooting 40% from the floor, but second chance points were the story in this game.
  • Game 2 - 2-4-09 at Michigan State = The Gophers were simply out-classed by the Spartans in this one, with State building a 42-16 halftime lead in route to a 76-47 victory. Durrell Summers led the scoring with 21 points on 8-10 shooting, and the Spartans shot 51% from the floor, held Minnesota to 29% shooting, and forced 15 turnovers. Sparty started the game on a 16-1 run and never looked back.

So, the Gophers have some work to do, and beating Michigan State will certainly help their chances of getting an at-large NCAA bid. I still believe they need one more victory than their current 22. They are now 22-9 (9-9), and are still on the bubble. The shenanigans in the other conference tournaments are doing nothing to help Minnesota's cause either (i.e. Baylor over Kansas, Oklahoma State over Oklahoma, Big East upsets, etc.). The more Cinderella stories in other conferences only mean Minnesota has to keep winning. I cannot help but think how things would be different now had the Gophers closed out their 12-point second half lead at home against Michigan last Saturday.

To beat Michigan State, the Gophers need to play as close to a perfect game as possible. The Spartans have legitimate aspirations of a top seed in one of the four regionals, and this game is a mismatch for the Gophers. Minnesota will have to force Michigan State's perimeter shooters into poor shot attempts and will absolutely need to perform better on the glass than the other two meetings against State. On the offensive side, they definitely need to take care of the basketball like they did today, but will need to shoot better, especially from beyond the arc, to defeat Michigan State.

In other games on Friday:

  • Ohio State vs. Wisconsin - Wisconsin won the only meeting in the regular season. This one will be close, but the Badgers win.
  • Michigan vs. Illinois - The two teams split their meetings this season, with no road wins in the two games. I think this is an interesting match-up, and should be a good game. The Wolverines are playing well right now, but Illinois will win with athleticism.
  • Penn State vs. Purdue - The teams split their two meetings this season, with each team winning on its home floor. Purdue wins this one, backed by the favorable crowd.
  • Minnesota vs. Michigan State - I like the Spartans in this one, which will be more similar to the first meeting than the second.

We'll have updates throughout the weekend on the Gophers' performance, leading up to "Selection Sunday."

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