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The border battle returns

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska Omaha at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Coming up tomorrow Iowa plays perhaps its most intriguing matchup of the year when the Hawkeyes travel to Minneapolis to take on a curious Minnesota team. Since you have no reason to concern yourself with Gopher hoops, we sat down with Mark from The Daily Gopher to get a better feel for their squad.

Let’s dive in to this Q&A!

Ben: After starting your Big Ten slate with a 3-1 record and earning a No. 25 ranking in the AP polls, the Gophers have since lost five of their last six. Yeesh, what is going on?

Mark: I'd say there are a few ways to look at this. Some folks might say that the youth of the team began to manifest itself and they started losing games, especially close contests because we didn't have anyone step up. Personally, I think it was a combination of the schedule catching up to some guys, and minutes catching up to Nate Mason. Mason has shot pretty poorly since the game at Purdue and that has had a brutal effect on the rest of the offense. They also played four of those six on the road, and everyone knows no matter who you're playing in the Big Ten, it's hard to win on the road. Plus, with home games against Wisconsin and Maryland that Minnesota led for decent portions that just didn't go the Gophers way at the end, it's hard to get too worried about this stretch of play. Would it have been nice to grab a few of those games? Sure. Would I say there is a problem going forward? No, because the they showed that when they finally got a break in the schedule, they were able to dispatch an Illinois team on the road. While Illinois isn't the greatest team, my point is that they took care of business and now the schedule opens up and they can look to piece some wins together.

It seems like teams have sort of figured out the dual threat of Nate Mason and Amir Coffey; (Coffey has been held below his scoring average in four of the last six, Mason in three of the last six) would you consider that a fair assessment?

Mason's woes from the field have probably been a combination of teams playing tougher defense on him and the accumulation of the season's minutes catching up with him. He showed some gusto in the second half against Illinois and led the team down the stretch but his recent play in the first half of games has been highly concerning. Coffey, on the other hand, is still trying to decide between hyper-aggression and being a piece of a larger puzzle on offense. He goes through spurts of scoring seven straight points in a flurry of spectacular play-making and then minutes later, seemingly drift for a ten minute stretch. I think most of this is because he is a freshman learning how to fit into the team as a whole while still choosing his spots.

Have teams figured them out? I suppose you could say that but they are definitely the guys who can elevate this team to another level, ie Mason and the Purdue game. If they play well on both sides of the ball, this team can beat anyone in the conference.

Reggie Lynch is second in the Big Ten in personal fouls, behind known convict Damonte Dodd. He's already a complete player with what he gives on the scoring, rebounding and blocking end. How important is it for Lynch to play a full game to give the Gophers a chance?

Lynch is huge for the Gophers. One, he has completely transformed their defense. A squad that ranked 162nd in the nation in defense a year ago is now 10th in the nation, in large part due to Lynch's block percentage, 13.5%, which ranks 3rd individually in the entire nation. There's no doubt he has had a massive effect on the defensive side of the floor with his ability to alter shots around the basket. Offensively, his impact is a little more nuanced. While he draws fouls at a decent clip, his free throw percentage of only 60.8% has held him back from being a true force. If he avoids foul trouble and stays on the floor, Minnesota has generally won. So I would say that it is vitally important that he avoids foul trouble.

Akeem Springs has been on an absolute tear lately (averaging 17 while shooting .450 from three over the last 4 games). How much of that do you think is teams doubling-down on Mason and Coffey, and how much do you think of that is becoming hot-handed?

Inserting Springs into the starting lineup over sophomore Dupree McBrayer has brought new life to the Gophers' outlook on offense. Springs brings instant offense with his penchant for shooting three-pointers. He's always been a capable shooter from long range and the team has done a good job at getting him quality looks from the corners, the most efficient spot for him on the floor. He has improved his 3-point percentage every year during his collegiate career. I haven't seen too many double-teams on Mason or Coffey, so I'll have to credit the recent streak from Springs on the confidence he gained by being in the starting lineup and his general increase in minutes played.

I think we would agree Richard Pitino's seat was red-hot coming in to this season. That cooled down a bit while Minnesota was winning, but now the heat is back on given your current skid. Do you think he's bought another year in Minny with this recruiting class and the flashes of brilliance this team is showing, or should Pitino The Greasier still be worried about his job?

I think, given the quality wins and the strength of schedule, regardless of how this year ends, Coach Pitino will still be prowling the sidelines at the Barn next year. Furthermore, the entire team returns, sans Springs, and there will be considerable depth at every position so a lot of people are pointing to next year as the true make or break year.

But, this year isn't over just yet. I believe Minnesota is going to take advantage of a front-loaded schedule and finish the Big Ten season strong. They currently stand at 37th in KenPom and 23rd in RPI. With wins at Purdue and at Northwestern, they have the pieces of resume to make the Big Dance. If they avoid any catastrophic losses, they will get in.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't think Pitino is in any immediate danger because this team has gone from 8-23 a year ago to knocking on the door of the Dance with a lot of talent on the books to come to Dinkytown in the near future. If the wheels fall off next year, Coach might need to start polishing his resume. But that "hot seat" no longer exists unless some unforeseen circumstances present themselves, even if some fans don't think he has shown much acumen for end-of-game situations.

How's the student section at the Barn been holding up? I know y'all have had some of the same troubles getting kids to games as Iowa has, even though the Barn is a treasure and smack dab on campus and serves elite Kemps ice cream.

I think the student section has been great when A. the team has had a home conference game (they've only had four so far) and B. when classes have actually been in session. This has only happened on two occasions so far this season, vs. Wisconsin and Maryland. For both of those games, the student section, and the rest of the crowd, was fantastic. Unfortunately, in the both cases, the rocking Barn couldn't carry the team to victory because they lost late in close affairs. I think now that folks know this team is close to being a high-quality team, you'll see the fans show up as they make a late season push for the NCAA Tournament.

And finally, who ya got?

I'll side with KenPom and predict a six-point Gopher victory, 76-70. Not due to over-confidence, merely because the Gophers are at home and finally broke the wretched losing streak that seemed to be weighing on the players minds and on the court.

So there you have it. Richard Pitino is no longer on the hot seat, the student section at the barn is just fine, you guys, and the Gophers are totally gonna win tomorrow.

As a former Minnesota fan, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were the Hawkeyes. Nobody loves choking more than the Gophers do at home, and Pitino is part ghoul so we should trust Our Man Fran and the Hawks to come out of Minny with a W here.

Big Thanks to Mark for doing this Q&A with us, and be sure to check in on all your Gopher news needs with our friends at The Daily Gopher.