The swing of momentum of the Gopher basketball program on Wednesday was massive. They were a Williams Arena win over the last place team in the Big Ten in front of a packed house away from .500 in the league but now they are in Columbus and I'm not sure casual fans have even noticed.
Losing to Illinois was a real punch to the gut of Gopher basketball. It wasn't the knock out punch as the Gophers are still a bubble team but they made their work much harder getting beat by 13 at home to the Illini. The NCAA Tournament Magic Number for wins? Could be three, likely four. If the Gophers can win two more during the regular season and one in the Big Ten Tournament they have a shot at the Big Dance. If they can win four more games and finish the season at 21-13 or 21-12 it would be even better.
Richard Pitino and his team can now take the "us versus the world" approach. Nobody expects them to go into Columbus and defeat an Ohio State team that has won five of their past six games. Their fan base walked out of Williams Arena with just over a minute to go and surprisingly enough, there was a chorus of boos that went with them. Yes expectations for Minnesota are low tonight but at the same time, they need to find a way to win a game against a good team quick before they become irrelevant in the eyes of the tournament committee.
It wasn't that long ago that Minnesota beat Ohio State 63-53 with Elliott Eliason scoring 12 points with 13 rebounds and Pitino calling him "the best center in the Big Ten". My have things changed. Mo Walker has began playing better since then and Elliott's play has simply nose-dived. But a month ago the Gophers dominated the Buckeyes inside in several ways while holding the Buckeye starters not named LaQuinton Ross to 19 points for the game. Some feel Ross is lucky to even be playing tonight after his role in a fight against Northwestern Wednesday.
On January 16th Ross knocked down 8 of 17 shots, hit three three-pointers, and scored 22 points in Williams Arena. The other four Buckeye starters (Aaron Craft, Amir Williams, Lenzelle Smith Jr., and Shannon Scott)? They combined to score 19 points on 6 of 22 shooting, 1 of 8 at the arc. The foursome also committed ten of the Buckeye 13 turnovers. Those four players usually combine for almost 38 points and the three guards usually shoot in the mid to high 40s percentage wise.
Minnesota not only had the 12 and 13 from Elliott but Deandre Mathieu attacked for 13 points with five assists, they got great scoring balance across the board, and mostly importantly, the Gophers dominated the glass 42-24 which overshadowed Minnesota's 18 turnovers.
Elliott Eliason hasn't scored in double figures since putting up the 12 and 13 against Ohio State. He's averaged a struggling 3.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in the nine games since compared to 6.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in games before OSU.
Mo Walker played six minutes on January 16th and played single figure minutes for the fourth straight game. He's played in double figure minutes every game since scoring 100 points on 42 of 71 shooting good for an average of 11.1 points and 5.3 rebounds shooting 59 percent from the floor in 22 minutes a game. What has happened for such a drastic switch? Who knows but Minnesota needs both bigs to play well.
The Buckeyes are coming off their fifth win in six games as they beat up Northwestern 76-60. The Buckeyes went to the foul line 29 times compared to the Wildcats 14 (OSU made 23), they won the rebounding battle 35-26, and they hit 7 of 16 treys while the Cats missed 16 of 21. Craft scored 14, Smith 14, Thompson 11, Ross 16, and Scott nine as the Buckeyes continue to get great balance.
Minnesota isn't the only team whose bigs are switching spots. Remember Amir Williams scoring just three points on 1 of 4 shooting and Sam Thompson stepping in to get a dozen points in his place in Williams Arena? Williams has made just one field goal in the last two games with Thompson taking his place and playing more of the minutes. Sam scored 11 points on Wednesday which was his first double figure scoring game since the Minnesota contest.
Minnesota hasn't won in Columbus since the 2004-05 season. They've dropped six straight games in Value City Arena and before the January 16th Gopher win, the Buckeyes had won six straight games versus Minnesota which dates back to 2010. Five of those six games were double figure Buckeye wins including three by 25 points or more.
Minnesota needs Andre Hollins or Malik Smith to break out of their shooting slump. Hollins has made just 19 of 54 shots since returning from injury making you wonder how healthy his ankle is right now. That's a shooting percentage of 35 from the floor and 32 percent at the arc. Malik knocked down a Gopher record tying eight three-pointers at Nebraska. Since then he has made only 6 of 31 three-pointers in the six games that followed and that includes the four made at Wisconsin. You take that game out and Malik has a February three-point shooting total of 2 for 24.
Minnesota has moved more to man to man allowing us to focus on more of these individual match-ups. Since we've talked about the post a lot, the focus is there. Elliott severely out-played Amir Williams resulting in Sam Thompson playing more but coming into this game Elliott and Amir have both been playing poor. Walker is scoring for Minnesota but defensively he still has his ups and downs.
The middle was the big difference last game and if one of these teams gets a big post performance they will win. Inside OSU let Elliott and Amir go at it one on one for a good part of the first game, it will be interesting to see if they double or how hard they did in round two considering how poorly Minnesota has been shooting at the arc.
Deandre Mathieu was controlled in most everything he did in the Buckeye win while Aaron Craft was broke. The Gophers gave him space to miss shots routinely in Williams Arena while on the other end nobody on Ohio State was able to keep Mathieu in front of them. Deandre is coming off the worst game of the season against Illinois who showed hard on ball screens taking away the penetration lanes and forcing kickouts or rushed shots at the buzzer. Will Ohio State do the same?
Williams doesn't have the agility to move off a screen as well as Thompson (back-up big_ does and Ross (OSU four man) has the physical capabilities to force Mathieu out of the middle if he plays it consistently. In the first game Craft had a cheap elbow that started a wave of pushing, shoving, arguing, and everything else that resulted in Pitino throwing his jacket and the officials having to call everything to calm the game down. It will be interesting to see Mathieu and Craft mix it up in Columbus.
Minnesota needs Andre Hollins, Malik Smith, and/or Austin Hollins to find make shots at the arc. We've touched on Andre and Malik struggling with their touch but Austin went 0 for 4 from the arc against Illinois and is shooting just 29.4 percent from three point range this season overall. That is down four points from last season and eight points from two years ago (his attempts at the arc are fairly similar in total). Whichever Gopher gets hot can expect to have Shannon Scott draped all over him and the guess is that Andre Hollins will have to deal with him first as Andre is the greatest threat. Austin will likely defend Smith while the Gophers need Oto Osenieks or Joey King to step forward to try and limit Ross.
If Minnesota was able to beat Ohio State it would be a big upset. The odds (Minnesota hasn't won in Columbus or came even close in nearly ten years, the Buckeyes are hot and Minnesota is struggling) are not in the favor of Minnesota. That said, they are now going to be more focused and have more fight in them at the start then ever.
That said, watch to see what happens the first couple times the Gophers face real adversity. Will they fight back and close the gap one play at a time? Or will the guys who are struggling get flustered again resulting in guards trying to make plays on there own and Elliott fouling out of frustration?
Minnesota needs three key things: 1.) Mathieu to keep his turnovers down, 2.) one of the wings to be at hot the arc and another to knock down a couple, and 3.) one of the posts to play defense consistently along with scoring in double figures. I think the Gophers play better but fall short. I am worried about what happens when the Buckeyes go on their second scoring run of the game. How Minnesota handles that could tell the story.