Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Do or Die Starts Wednesday

The Gopher basketball team faces an uphill battle if it wants to receive an NCAA tournament bid later this month. At first glance, the team appears to be in reasonably good shape. It has a 20-8 record, quality wins against the likes of Louisville, Ohio State, and Illinois, and is in the middle of the pack in a year in which the Big Ten is considered strong. With an RPI ranking of 36, thanks largely in part to early-season quality wins, the Gophers stand a reasonable shot.

However, the Gophs are only 8-8 in the conference, and are a team headed in the wrong direction. Since the miracle 78-74 win against Wisconsin back in January, the Gophers are only 4-7, with two of those wins against a dreadful Indiana team. In his latest edition of "Bracketology," ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Minnesota out of the Big Dance, but one of the last four out. The Gophers would need to hope for a seventh Big Ten invitation to avoid an NIT berth. Read the full Bracketology projection, updated through March 2, here.

In contrast, the improbably Minnesota game occurred in the midst of Wisconsin's six-game tailspin. The Badgers have recovered of late to win six out of its last seven games. Bucky is 18-10 overall, 9-7 in the conference, and with a win against the Gophers Wednesday night - and a win at home against Indiana to close out the regular season - could cement a tournament bid for itself. Sconnie's RPI is 32, buoyed by a strength of schedule which is listed as #6. In Lunardi's analysis, Wisconsin is in the NCAA tournament as a 9 seed.

In short, this is a huge game for both teams.

Realistically, the Gophers need to win Wednesday and Saturday at home against Michigan in order to have any shot at a NCAA bid. It wouldn't hurt them to win one or two games in the Big Ten tournament next weekend either. Getting to 24 wins, 12 of them in the conference, will make it difficult for the selection committee to keep the Gophers out; losing Wednesday or Saturday will make it easy.

Wisconsin simply needs to keep winning to get to the 20-win perceived hurdle. Its strength of schedule will help in the selection process. Bo Ryan's team will also be mindful of what happened in Madison back in January.

The key for Minnesota will be to keep the pace up-tempo and get Wisconsin out of its rhythm. The Gophers' strength is their defense forcing turnovers and/or quick shots, leading to transition points. The Gophers have had no half court offense to speak of in the last month, so they will need to keep the pace fast. PG Al Nolen is at his best when he is leading the transition and has struggled mightily of late when forced to work the ball inside at a slower pace. Tubby Smith's team also has 11 players averaging double-digits in minutes, which suggests two things:
  1. The Gophers have depth this year not seen in previous teams
  2. Tubby Smith has not been able to set a firm rotation, given his young team's inexperience.

Look for Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson to create transition points, similar to how they performed in Minnesota's last outing at Illinois. With Wisconsin's size and balanced scoring attack, the Gophers will have to rely on its big men, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, cloggong the middle. The problem here is that both are freshmen.

Wisconsin's team this year is similar to other Bo Ryan teams - a host of role players buying into his system - and relies on Marcus Landry, Trevon Hughes, and Jason Bohanon to do the scoring. They can wear teams down with their style.

I like Minnesota in this one. Both teams are extremely well-coached and certainly have a lot for which to play. However, the home court advantage should carry the Gophers through this one. It'll be close, but the Gophers win.

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