Iowa (16-9, 5-7) vs. Minnesota (18-7, 6-6)
Date: February 17, 2013
Time: 1:00 p.m. CT
Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
Line: Iowa -1
We've typed it so many times this season that I have the phrase copied and pasted to a Windows Notepad file on my desktop for safekeeping: This is a must-win game for Iowa's NCAA Tournament hopes. The Hawkeyes have six games remaining, with five of them truly winnable. Winning those five games would improve Iowa to 21-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten, possibly good for a top-tier finish in the nation's toughest conference. That sixth- or seventh-place finish, coupled with a win or two in the Big Ten tournament (that second win would be over one of the conference's big five teams) could get Iowa into the bubble conversation despite a horrendous RPI.
All of that is moot, of course, without a win today over the hated Minnesota Golden Gophers. Something odd has been happening in St. Paul recently. For one, Minnesota is just 3-6 in their last nine. For another, the Gophers' offensive output over the last seven games has plummeted. In Minnesota's first five Big Ten games (against MSU, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Northwestern, so really only one slouch), the Gophers scored 77.0 points per game. In the last seven, that average has dropped to 57.0 ppg, and only once -- a blowout win over Nebraska -- did Minnesota break 63 points. There have been no significant injuries that have hampered the Gophers, but there is the simple fact of a long season with a short bench. Minnesota is more dependent on their starting five for minutes and offensive production than any other Big Ten team. The Gophers' starters account for 76.9% of the Gophers' minutes and 86.4% of their points in Big Ten play, against a schedule ranked by Kenpom as the nation's toughest. Just twice in twelve conference games has the Minnesota bench contributed more than twelve points. Twice, including in their first game against Iowa, the Gopher bench was shut out. Offensive production from the Minnesota starting five has fell off precipitously, and there has been no answer from the Gopher bench.
That's not to say that Minnesota is no longer dangerous. Tubby's Gophers are still one of the nation's most efficient offensive teams, and lead the country in offensive rebounding percentage. They also get to the free throw line at nearly the same rate as Iowa. Minnesota is vulnerable to turning the ball over, especially when their guards are pressured, but otherwise do things as you would expect from a top-tier Big Ten team.
Defensively, the Gophers build from Trevor Mbakwe out. They are sixth nationally in blocked shots, due in no small part to Mbakwe and Rodney Williams combining for 3.1 per game. Minnesota's inside presence limits opponents to 42.5% shooting on two-point attempts, one of the nation's lowest percentages allowed. The Gophers also generate a lot of turnovers. Their defense tries to cut off interior passing and let Mbakwe handle the shots, eventually forcing opponents to shoot from the perimeter.
Iowa's magic number is 70: Since November, Iowa has not won a game in which it scored less than 70 points, and have not won a game where they had scored less than 70 at the end of regulation (they did lost at Wisconsin with 70 points, but only after double overtime). On the other sideline, Minnesota's complete lack of scoring lately makes 70 points nearly insurmountable. If Iowa can control tempo, push the exhausted Minnesota starting five into making mistakes, and convert those mistakes into easy buckets, Minnesota is absolutely vulnerable. But if Minnesota turns this into a halfcourt war where Iowa has to rely on outside shooting and the isolation/drive-and-dish game, the Hawkeyes will be playing into Minnesota's hands, and this team can't afford to do that and win.