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Back to the Big Ten: Purdue hosts Minnesota tonight.

I am probably jinxing things by saying this, but we are going for history tonight. With a Purdue win this year's team will match its best start in school history. Our only previous 14-0 start came in 1994, when the Big Dog, Glenn Robinson, took us within a game of the Final Four. That is the goal this season. With so many projections now placing us as a number 1 seed it is hard not to dream.

I don't think it is a jinx though. We're playing at home. With the way we played against West Virginia last week it will take a special effort for someone to beat us in Mackey Arena. Minnesota is a good team, but I don't know if they are a team good enough to beat us at home if we are on. More importantly though, this is a critical game early in the conference season. A loss tonight would put us behind the Gophers, who are already 2-0 in conference play.

It is also the first time Minnesota has played at Mackey Arena in almost two years. They, along with Indiana, were the only teams we played once in conference play during the last two seasons. We were able to win at the Barn in late January, and at the time that victory kept us alive in the conference race.

You regular readers know that I am a big proponent of not weighting games in conference play. A win over Minnesota is just as important in the conference standings as a win over Michigan State or Iowa. The key to winning the conference this year will also be defending the home court. The team that defends its home court the best will win it all. Tonight is our first chance to defend that court. If you think it is easy all you have to do is remember that we lost our home conference opener last year to a hot shooting Illinois team.

2008-09 record: 22-11, 9-9 Big Ten (lost to Texas 76-62 in NCAA Tournament first round)

2009-10 record: 11-3, 2-0 Big Ten

Blog representation: The Daily Gopher, From the Barn, Down With Goldy

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 93-78

Last Purdue win: 1/22/09 at Minnesota 70-62

Last Minnesota win: 1/7/07 at Minnesota 65-59

Last Minnesota win at Purdue: 2/26/05 59-57

Is this Minnesota team returning to the NCAA Tournament? They have been in and out of the rankings all season, but they have split games against fellow bubble teams so far. The best win was an 82-73 win over Butler in the 76 Classic out in Anaheim. While that was a good win to start that tournament, the Golden Gophers promptly lost games to Portland and Texas A&M to finish the event. In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the Gophers dropped a tough road game at Miami 63-58. The Hurricanes are 14-1 with only a one point loss at Boston College, but the victory over Minnesota is by far their best.

Minnesota has not lost since dropping that game in Coral Gables. In terms of common non-conference opponents with us they have beaten South Dakota State (92-62) and St. Joseph's (97-74). They have no real schedule heft so far other than the four game stretch against Butler, Portland, Texas A&M, and Miami. When you consider they lost three of those games you have to consider them as a bubble team. The 2-0 start in conference play has come against Penn State and Iowa.

One major factor that is going into tonight's game is the injury situation with 6'11" center Ralph Sampson III. In today's Daily Nugs over at the Daily Gopher they reported that Sampson is likely out for tonight with an ankle injury, thus depriving Minnesota of its best matchup against JaJuan Johnson. Considering how that matchup played out last year it is not a good thing. JJ had 19 points, 8 rebounds, and five blocks in a dominant effort against the Gophers. Sampson had a weaker 6-7-1 line in those respective categories. JJ was also 7 of 10 from the line while Sampson was only 2 of 2. Just imagine what JJ can do without Sampson's defense.

Losing Sampson and his numbers (7.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 2.2 bpg) is not the way you want to face a tough defensive team on its home floor. Sampson is more of a defensive weapon because of his blocks and ability to clog the lane than he is an offensive weapon. He is also a solid offensive rebounder they will miss. We can probably expect fellow sophomore Colton Iverson (5.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) to try and fill the void. Iverson is 6'10", but he is not the defensive presence that Sampson is. One of Iverson's best games this season came against Butler in a 13 point, 11 rebound effort.

Most of Minnesota's scoring comes from 6' senior guard Lawrence Westbrook (13.8 ppg), 6'4" junior guar Blake Hoffarber (11.9 ppg), and 6'7" senior forward Damian Johnson (10.6 ppg). All three of these players are dangerous 3-point shooters. Hoffarber is shooting better than 50% from long range (41 of 81). Westbrook is a 42% shooter from long range while Johnson is a 38.5% shooter from outside. Johnson does not shoot as much with only 13 attempts, but he is still dangerous. 6'3" sophomore guard Devoe Joseph (9.5 ppg, 2.5 apg) is also a good 3-point shooter (33%).

One thing that will help Minnesota with the loss of Sampson tonight is its depth. They list only 11 players on the roster, but 10 of those players see regular minutes and contribute in small ways. Rodney Williams, Paul Carter, and Al Nolen each average more than six points per night. Nolen is a key cog in the offense as a distributor. He averages about five assists per game. Nolen is also a good free throw shooter, hitting 73.5%.

I really think the Gophers will struggle without Sampson though. It is not so much his numbers, but what he does with his presence on the court that makes a difference. Minnesota is not a strong rebounding team, yet he is their best rebounder. The Gophers aren't afraid to play the kickout game with him either, as he does give about two assists per game. They also lose his shot blocking ability.

Where Minnesota can compete is its perimeter shooting ability. This is a team that shoots 48.9% from the field as a whole.  Westbrook, Hoffarber, Johnson, Williams, and Carter are all shooting better than 50% on the year. As a team, Minnesota also shoots almost 40% from 3-point land. There will be even more of a focus on that tonight because of Sampson's absence. That accurate shooting also makes for a very high 1.33 points per possession rate.

Clearly, Minnesota is a team that has some talent. They will likely be in the NCAA Tournament again at the end of the season as long as they finish better than .500 in a crowded Big Ten. A 9-9 record in conference play was good enough last year, and they are better than that this season. Getting tonight's game, however, would allow them to dream of something more. Minnesota does not have to go to Wisconsin this year, so a win at Purdue would allow them to think of a possible Big Ten championship.

It is hard to figure out how to defend the perimeter when they have so many good shooters. This means we must play total team defense and not just rely on a few Kramer moments here and there. Fortunately, we have the West Virginia game as a template. The Mountaineers had a great game shooting the three, but it was our disruption of their offensive flow that made the biggest difference. That must continue tonight, while Kramer hounds their hot hand.

Keys to the Game for Purdue:

  • Defend the Perimeter
  • Continue to feed JJ in the post and let the big man eat
  • Work on attacking the basket and getting to the line
  • Feed off the home crowd (This is the last game without the full Paint Crew)
  • Allow Chris Kramer to "do his thing" on their hot shooter

Prediction: Purdue 72, Minnesota 65