This is where the real season begins. Up until now, we have not played a top 50 RPI team. The closest is Penn State, whose recent upsets have moved them to 52. Of our remaining 15 regular season games, 11 will come against top 50 RPI teams, 12 if Penn State moves into the top 50. That is a ridiculous finishing stretch that comes from playing in the toughest top to bottom conference in the country.
We also have to return to the scene of our nightmares. As a warning to Purdue fans: Get ready to see 12 replays of Robbie Hummel getting hurt last year in The Barn. As horrific as the injury was, the rest fo the game was an example of Boilermaker basketball as we recovered to have Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer lead us to a key victory.
Kramer and Grant are gone. Hummel is not back yet either. Instead, we must face one of the most difficult lineups we will face all season with only Travis Carroll and JaJuan Johnson playing in the post. All this comes against a team that is feeling the pangs of desperation with a 1-3 start to league play. The Golden Gophers have already likely seen their Big Ten championship hopes fade away. They don't want their NCAA hopes doing the same.
2009-10 Record: 10-22, 4-14 Big Ten
2010-11 Record: 21-14, 9-9 Big Ten
Postseason Result: Lost to Xavier 65-54 in NCAA First Round
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 95-79
Last Purdue win: 2/24/10 59-58 at Minnesota
Last Minnesota win: 3/13/10 69-42 at Conseco Fieldhouse (Big Ten Tournament Semifinals)
Time & TV: 7pm on ESPN
|Ralph Sampson III||16||26.7||3.8||8.1||46.2||0.2||0.7||27.3||3.0||4.3||69.6||1.8||3.9||5.7||1.2||1.2||0.6||1.9||2.9||10.7|
Our last two games with the Gophers have been doubly damaging. The February 24th game will always be known as That Game, where the victory ultimately propelled us to a Big Ten Championship, but the catastrophic loss of Robbie continues to have ripples to this day. The loss in the Big Ten Tournament put Minnesota into the NCAA Tournament and our horrible performance dropped us at least a seed line, maybe two. Considering that both games combined dropped us from a sure one seed to the most questionable four seed in last year's tourney there are a lot of What Ifs.
It is not Minnesota's fault Robbie got hurt, either. He just planted wrong and had bad luck. The fact that his second ACL tear occurred when Minnesota was in town for football is just weird. If anyone else gets hurt tonight I am officially drafting a resolution to kick them out of the conference for our safety.
This year's Minnesota squad should have the same level of angst on Selection Sunday as long as they get to .500 in the Big Ten. Their lone conference win came against Indiana, but the Gophers already have solid non-conference wins over North Carolina and West Virginia. Virginia was the only team to get them in non-conference play, and all three conference losses have come on the road.
The big story, of course, is leading scorer Trevor Mbakwe. It appears he will play after being arrested earlier this week. That is crucial for Minnesota as he is one of the league's best rebounders at 10.4 per game. He is a major reason Minnesota leads the Big Ten at 40 boards per contest. Mbakwe at 6'8", Ralph Sampson III at 6'11", and Colton Iverson at 6'10" Give the Gophers a size advantage that will be very difficult to match. We will possibly see Carroll and Johnson on the floor at the same time, and I wouldn't be surprised if Sandi Marcius plays a little. It will also be critical for D.J. Byrd and Kelsey Barlow to continue their effort on the glass.
While the Gophers have an edge in the post, we have an edge at the guard positions. Devoe Joseph was averaging 11.3 points per game before he decided to transfer to Oregon. Al Nolen missed five games earlier this season, but he is their main distributor. His assists are down while his turnovers are up, meaning the defensive pressure of Lewis Jackson, Barlow, and Ryne Smith will try to hassle him even more. This is where I can see us having an advantage by scoring in transition off of our defense.
Blake Hoffarber is Minnesota's best perimeter player. He averages 13.4 points per game and shoots at a near 40% clip from long range. As long as our perimeter defense continues to frustrate shooters we can eliminate Hoffarber. That will leave Nolen trying to get the ball inside to Sampson, Iverson, and Mbakwe.
Sampson is an interesting matchup with JJ because he can bring him out of the post. Sampson hit a three last year against us and he isn't afraid to shoot the jumper out there. We're either going to have to give that to him or venture JJ out of the post and risk Mbakwe and Iverson doing big things down low. That is why Carroll's development is so important. This will be his most important game defensively.
I do think our guards have a major advantage though. They need to disrupt things on the perimeter as they have done all year and prevent penetration to the post. Offensively, I don't think Minnesota has anyone with LewJack's quickness or Smith's shooting ability. They are going to have to respect Smith, and that should mean for a big game from E'Twaun Moore. Don't be surprised if JJ is frustrated offensively. As long as E'Twaun breaks out of his mini-scoring slump he should be in line for a monster game. The possible return of John Hart could be another plus in our favor.
Depth should be in our favor with Nolen gone. They have an eight man rotation, but only five guys (Hoffarber, Mbakwe, Sampson, Nolen, and 6'7" forward Rodney Williams) play more than 20 minutes.
I am very concerned about their size. JJ had a very hard earned 14 and 10 while playing all 40 minutes last year in Minneapolis. Sampson still had 21 and Mbakwe wasn't playing last year. Iverson and Sampson were good in Indianapolis, but we mostly lost that game because we couldn't hit a damn thing in the first half. E'Twaun went 1 of 14 from the field in that game. That won't be happening tomorrow night.
This game will be a true test of our will, but I know we can win it. Minnesota is not playing particularly well in Big Ten play. They struggled with Indiana and have lost three games to ranked foes. I expect a close game a lot like last year's contest.