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Back to the Front

It has been a long 8 days, but tonight he Boilers return to the court against the last conference opponent they have yet to see this season. Minnesota is a bit of an enigma, as the Gophers have sat right in the middle of the conference for most of the season. With only two home games remaining and a very tight race at the top of the conference every single game is important. Since Northwestern finally broke through last night at Michigan even that one is no longer the gimme it once was. This Boilermaker team has already locked up a bid to the tournament, so now it is time to play for a conference championship and a higher seed.

The Minnesota game provides an interesting challenge since it is our first game after a long layoff since the end of the non-conference season. It also is the first game we have had a chance to play after a loss since early January. Boiled Sports pointed out this morning that the start of another 11-game winning streak would have us finish as the Big Ten champion for both the regular season and tournament, plus it would put us in the Final Four in San Antonio. I can certainly live with that, and hope it starts tonight.

Minnesota so far:

The Gophers are one of the most well-covered teams in the Big Ten bloggers' network with Paging Jim Shikenjanski, Gopher Nation, and From the Barn each providing excellent analysis throughout the season. Gopher Nation is even the organizer of our Big Ten bloggers' poll where Purdue has had a grip on the number one slot since winning in Madison. Seeing as how the Gophers don't necessarily get along with the Badgers we're probably viewed as good friends of their since we have swept Wisconsin.

On the season, with a few exceptions, Minnesota has done very well in terms of beating the teams it should beat. They currently sit at 17-9, 7-7 in the Big Ten and with a strong finishing kick they could sneak into the NCAA tournament. Because of that they will be wanting tonight's game pretty badly. Among their nine losses the only one I would quantify as a "bad loss" and 84-60 drubbing at the hands of Illinois in The Barn. It is Goldy's luck that the Illini finally chose to play up to their talent level in that game. Outside of the conference Minnesota lost at a decent Florida State team by 14 in the ACC/Big Ten challenge and by 17 at UNLV. The Rebels are a borderline tournament team, but Florida State is not.

Though the Gophers have 17 wins the real problem lies in the fact that none of them could really be called a "good" win. The Big Ten Conference season is littered with near-misses, as Minnesota played Michigan State tough twice but could not break through in addition to close losses to Indiana and Wisconsin. Since Minnesota is battling Ohio State for a perceived fifth bid from the conference the loss in Columbus hurts, but they can get it back by beating the Buckeyes in Minneapolis this weekend. The best win out of conference came over Iowa State 68-58 in Ames. That was the second game of the season, and it should be noted Iowa State beat us. The rest of the non-conference schedule, aside from the two losses, are teams Minnesota should have easily beaten.

Who is dangerous for the Gophers:

Minnesota shocked many this past offseason by going out and grabbing Tubby Smith as a head coach. Say what you will about the man, but he has won a National Championship and more than 400 games, so he can coach a little. As far as players go, the Gophers throw out a lineup that is very much like ours in terms of scoring balance. They too have three players who average in double figures in Dan Coleman (12.5 per game), Lawrence McKenzie (11.4) and Spencer Tollackson (10.5). Three more players chip in at least seven points per game. Coleman built much of his average in a solid non-conference season, but he has leveled off in Big Ten play. McKenzie has become more of the go to guy in Big Ten play, but much like our own team it can change on a game by game basis. The Gophers share the ball very well, averaging more than 16 assists per game.

Minnesota is one of the best scoring teams in the league, ranking third at more than 71 points per game. They have continued to score well once the Big Ten season started, but their numbers are just slightly below our own in conference games only. They also rank 4th in field goal percentage and are the best 3-point shooting team in the league. These numbers, combined with their own lack of overall size (no player is over 6'9") means they are almost a clone of our team. They are very well coached, as mentioned above, and they have enough overall talent to give anyone trouble.

Defensively Minnesota plays very well, as they force the most turnovers (more than 18 per game) of anyone in the league. They also average nearly seven steals per ballgame, meaning we will have to take care of the basketball against a team that has better turnover numbers defensively than our own. Considering how hungry they are for a big win and the prospect of passing Ohio State right in front of them they could play extra hard.

What not to fear from Minnesota:

For all the positives that Minnesota has, it seems like they lack an ability to finish. A statistic that stands out is turnovers given up. Minnesota turns the ball over more than anyone in the league except Iowa, and that means they have a tendency to beat themselves. While they cause a lot of turnovers, they also give up a large number of them. If we're not able to take care of the basketball tonight's game could easily devolve into a sloppy, low-scoring affair like the Iowa game.

Minnesota also struggles from the free throw line. They are not quite as bad as Illinois from the line, but they only hit roughly two thirds of their shots there. Minnesota isn't particularly strong in terms of rebounding, but their numbers are slightly better than our own. As previously mentioned they are not particularly big. Only Coleman averages more than five rebounds per game. They rebound by committee much like we do, so we should be able to have more success inside than we did at Indiana.

One player to look out for who is not really a danger to score, but can hurt us with his ability to distribute the ball is freshman guard Al Nolen. Nolen ranks in the top 8 in the league in assists and is tied with Chris Kramer and Trevon Hughes for most steals per game. He's the type of player that can truly change things without even putting points on the boards, and as a freshman could be quite a handful in this league the next few seasons.

General Outlook:

I am honestly a little afraid of this game because of how similar the teams appear on paper. The only real difference between the two is the intangible quality of being able to finish close games. Purdue has proven they have it by winning 12 of 14 league games, while Minnesota has been unable to break through against a good team yet. Based on that historical precedent we can expect a close game with Purdue's edge in intangibles coming out in the end.

Unfortunately there is still the wild card of Purdue not playing a game in more than a week. In each of our previous long layoffs we have come out and won, but it has taken us a little while to get going. This break has been advantageous in allowing players like Kramer and Grant to get healed up a bit from some nagging injuries. The team also seems more focused on causing havoc defensively with how much they stressed defense in practice. We should also have fresher legs for the stretch run, and that will help with our shooting.

I am wondering why we focused so much on defense when we have been a good defensive team. I suppose coach Painter simply figures that the shots will eventually start falling again after the dismal performance in Bloomington, so we might as well practice something we can get even better at. This team will be almost frightening against anyone in the country if they continue to improve on defense, and if we can ever rebound as well it will put us in the realm of nearly unstoppable.

Tonight's game should be quite interesting since the teams are so similar, but I expect Purdue's consistency in the end to be a major positive. It also helps that we get to play at home right after this break. The home crowd and the home rims should be a huge boost for a team that has had to sit on a loss to its biggest rival for 8 days. The fact we have had to sit on that loss and consider it while watching both Indiana and Wisconsin go out and continue to win games could be a hidden positive.

All we need to do is take care of the ball tonight because Minnesota thrives off of creating turnovers. Indiana had the athletes and overall talent to overcome the turnover discrepancy in Bloomington, and even then we had to have a terrible night shooting the basketball for them to win. Minnesota, while being a good team, does not have these advantages. When the Big Ten season started I viewed this game as critically important towards getting the necessary 11 wins for an NCAA bid. I felt Purdue and Minnesota were about equal. If we had not gone on an 11 game tear in conference play we probably would be just about equal with them right now. Despite that, it is still an important game, just for a different number of reasons. If they win it means even more to them in terms of the post-season, but to us it would be another step. I would like to see us play a little more aggressively in the paint against a team that does not have a size advantage and not rely on the 3-pointer so much. We also need to defend the perimeter, not allow good looks from long range, and cause turnovers. Shooting better than 40% would also be nice. If we do these things we should be able to get a pretty good win to start our stretch run. Purdue 68, Minnesota 62