I had a chance to do a Q&A exchange with Steve Bailey of www.fromthebarn.org about tonight's game in Minnesota. Here are the questions and his answers (my answers to his questions are posted on his site):
1. Minnesota is 0-2 in conference play. What happened?
It's not what has happened; it's what hasn't happened, which is execution in crunch time. Against Illinois in the conference opener the Gophers were in position at the end of regulation as well as the first overtime to take home a win. Botched shots and missed free throws gave those opportunities - and eventually the game - away. They were also in decent shape against Michigan but just couldn't quite get over the hump at the end.
Of course, all of this is happening without the team's best player. After Trevor Mbakwe went down with a knee injury most of Gopher Nation, including myself, wrote off the team and just hoped to see some growth in our younger guys. Instead, the team totally banded together and went on a pretty nice winning streak (albeit against fairly weak opponents). Unfortunately, the Big Ten conference schedule hasn't been super kind, putting Minnesota on the road against Illinois and Michigan in it's first two games - arenas that are not particularly forgiving. Without their best player it would have been hard to expect this team to be anything other than 0-2 at this point and considering they were in it until the end in both games shows that they might actually need to be taken seriously. Still would have been nice to steal that Illinois win, though...
2. Which Gophers are stepping up and filling in for Trevor Mbakwe's absence?
It's been a very strange transition and one that I really haven't been able to put my finger on. Like I said, as soon as Mbakwe went down the season went from possibly promising to altogether awful. But somehow the dynamic of the team switched and they almost started playing better, which continues to be mind boggling. Part of this might be the fact that they no longer feel like they have to work the offense through Mbakwe 75% of the time, and the rest of the court opens up. With such a long, athletic team this has actually worked in their favor.
Rodney Williams has been the biggest benefactor so far. He was playing a bit out of position at the three and found new life when he was forced to fill in down low for Mbakwe. Williams lacks a good jumper but can out-jump basically anyone in the conference, so he's found new life on the block where he can attempt more high-percentage shots and grab rebounds. Julian Welch, a transfer from UC-Davis, has become the go-to guy for the team this season, as has been leaned on heavily in the past couple games to help carry the backcourt.
3. Minnesota has struggled rebounding this season. Do you see that as a problem tonight?
Definitely the biggest blow from the Mbakwe loss was the rebounding prowess he brought on both sides. He led the league in rebounding last year and was almost unstoppable on the boards through the beginning of this year. As expected, we've seen a sharp drop-off in rebounding since he's left. They no longer run the offense through post players (instead settling for jumpers), which puts them at a disadvantage for grabbing offensive rebounds. They aren't super big to begin with, either, so they often get out-muscled for rebounds on the opposite end as well. Iowa, though, isn't necessarily a big team, so I don't see that being as big of a problem as it would be against other teams. That said, the Gophers even had trouble on the offensive boards against comparatively weaker, smaller non-conference teams, so the rebounding advantage is far from a certainty.
4. What is the Minnesota basketball team's biggest weakness?
On offense their biggest weakness is the lack of a true scorer. Welch is the closest thing they seem to have, but he's slow on the dribble and can't really create his own shot. Without that true scorer, they've been forced to work hard in the half-court and look for great, shots. Of course, those aren't always available, which leads to some pretty awful possessions, confused behavior and low-percentage jumpers.
On defense, the team has a weak three-point defense and focuses instead of taking away any inside game, which can end up being the Achilles' heel if the opposing team is hitting its shots. They gamble that most three-pointers won't go down (and are usually right), but giving up that many open shots can lead to some quick runs for the opponent if they can get hot from deep for a period of time.
5. How about a game prediction? Which team wins and why?
The Gophers really want that first conference win, and they have got to be frustrated by losing two close games on the road. That said, I expect them to come out intense and really pushing for that early lead. They've been a second-half team all year but they'll finally have a good crowd for a home game (something they haven't had all year) which should give them a good atmosphere to feed off of. That'll help to give them some confidence and take home a 70-55 victory.
Iowa men's hoops have won four of their last five games. Coach McCaffery insists it's because "we have good kids in the program and they're going to keep fighting." Iowa will need to win the rebounding battle in Minnesota to have a chance at the win. The Hawkeyes out-rebounded Wisconsin 41-37 and have won that battle three of the last four games.
TitoHawk, at High Porch Picnic, takes a deeper look inside the numbers. Tito's charts and stats give Minnesota a slight advantage. Combine that with the home court advantage and Tito predicts a narrow Gopher win.
Here are some of the many interesting stats from the official Iowa game release:
- Minnesota leads the all-time series 100-88
- In two Big Ten games Iowa is averaging 10 turnovers per game
- Iowa is second in the Big Ten in free throw percentage at 74.6%
- Iowa is third in the Big Ten in scoring at 77.5 ppg
- Devyn Marble is second in the conference in assist/turnover ration (4.2)
- Matt Gatens is first in the Big Ten in free throw percentage at 90.9%
- Iowa back on track after sluggish start to basketball season
- Preview: Iowa at Minnesota from Rivals
- Preview: Hawkeyes travel to Minnesota on Wednesday night
- It's not you, it's me Big Ten
- Former Hawkeyes in the NFL playoffs
- Ricky Davis and Sean Sonderleiter in the NBA D-League
- Big Ten needs 9-game football slate, not annual challenge with Pac-12
- Insight video and final 2011 stats
- Coming soon to Texas, The Sooner Network
- Iowa lost to Campbell, they are a predicted #16 seed in latest bracketology
- You don't have to watch LSU/Bama, a psychic already knows the winner
- Marriage proposal FAIL
- Don't eff with ESPN's Holly Rowe