Iowa (19-7, 8-5) vs. Minnesota (17-11, 6-9)
Date: February 25, 2014
Time: 6:00 p.m. CT
Location: Williams Arena, St. Paul
Line: Iowa -3
The Hawkeyes take yet another shot at their 20th win Tuesday night at Williams Arena against Minnesota. Tipoff on BTN is set for 6 p.m. Central.
Tuesday night's game is now between two teams trying to reverse course. Iowa's weekend home defeat against Wisconsin effectively ended any chance of a Big Ten regular season title, and while the Hawkeyes have yet to lose to a team outside the Top 25 or by more than eight points in any of their seven losses, there remains the sting of a goal not reached.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is completely reeling. The Gophers were 15-5 after 20 games this season. A road loss to Nebraska in late January started a downward spiral; since then, the Gophers have dropped a home game against then-hot Northwestern, a triple overtime defeat at Purdue, and a 13-point home loss to Illinois six days ago. Minnesota has dropped six of their last eight games, putting the Gophers square on the NCAA Tournament bubble with Tuesday's game and a weekend trip to Michigan yet to come.
Offensively, Minnesota is about where they were when they visited Carver Hawkeye Arena five weeks ago. The Gophers shoot at an effective 50.7 percent effective rate, they rebound about a third of their misses, and they are good at the free throw line. Minnesota is increasingly dependent on the three-point shot -- a 12.5 percent block rate will do that for you -- even though they shoot less than 35 percent from the perimeter, right at the national average. Aside from getting way too many shots blocked and turning the ball over on nearly one in five possessions -- again, near the national average -- the Gophers are playing solid offensive basketball, and have all season.
The defensive issues are more problematic. In the ten games since we last previewed Minnesota, opponents are shooting at nearly a five percent higher effective rate than they had in the season's first 18 games. Three-point shooting has contributed a significant amount of that. Gopher opponents were shooting 30.7 percent from behind the arc over the first 18 games; that figure is now 33.3 percent for the entire season. Minnesota generates a lot of steals -- as expected from a team with a three-guard starting lineup -- but is otherwise a solid-if-unspectacular defensive team.
That backcourt trio -- Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins, and Deandre Mathieu -- continue to be the catalyst for Minnesota on both ends of the court. Andre Hollins, who put up 20 points on Iowa earlier this year, is leading the Gophers with 14.8 points per game and is second in assists (2.5 apg). Mathieu (11.6 ppg, 4.2 apg, 49.6% FG), the diminutive point guard, has improved considerably and can effect the game as a scorer or distributor. Austin Hollins is third on the team in scoring (10.9 ppg), second in rebounding (5.8 rpg) and assists (2.4 apg), and leads the Gophers in steals (1.9 spg). Mathieu and backup Malik Smith (9.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg) are the Gophers' top perimeter threats, but Smith has been inconsistent-to-poor since a 29-point performance in the loss at Nebraska.
Inside, the Gophers rely on center Elliott Eliason to contribute 20-30 quality minutes, block some shots (2.2 bpg and the #26 block rate nationally), grab some rebounds (7.3 rpg), and score where he can. Forwards Joey King (6.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg) and Maurice Walker (7.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg) contribute, though the latter has struggled in recent weeks after a run of three consecutive games with 14 or more points in early February.
In a perfect world, Lil' Richard Pitino would go seven-deep on his rotation. In practice, that can't easily be done. Latvian import Oto Osenieks plays plenty of minutes (19.0 mpg), but doesn't do much when he's there (5.6 ppg). Freshman guard Daquein McNeil (10.5 mpg, 1.7 ppg) has seen his role increase slightly in recent weeks, while senior guard Maverick Ahanmisi (8.0 mpg, 1.4 ppg) is a last-ditch option should Minnesota have to go ten-deep.
On paper, Iowa's a clear favorite. The Hawkeyes have better personnel, a better track record, impeccable performance on the road this season, and the more efficient offense and defense. But Iowa also has just two days of rest, another flight to catch tonight, another two games this week, and not nearly as much to play for as the Gophers. Those kinds of intangible factors, coupled with the home court advangage held by Minnesota, could sink this team a year ago. We'll see tonight whether it will continue to sink this program in 2014.