Did Minnesota Save Its Season Tuesday night?Posted by jnowak on February 27th, 2013
Minnesota has been at a karaoke bar for almost two months now, just belting out the chorus to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” on repeat, with Tubby Smith singing the lead vocals. But a team that is as frustrating as it is talented finally got its act together at just the right time on Tuesday night, upsetting #1 Indiana, 77-73, at The Barn. Perhaps it was the sports psychologist that Smith brought in this week. Perhaps it was the crowd and the team recognizing the opportunity of having a vulnerable #1 come to town in conference play. Or perhaps it was just this group of talented, athletic players finally figuring out how to play together. Whatever the case was, Minnesota needed this win, and badly. Fortunately for the Gophers, they’ve likely played their way safely into the NCAA Tournament field and only have games against Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue remaining before the Big Ten Tournament. Can they hold on? We’ll see. But here’s a few more thoughts on Tuesday night’s upset:
- The Gophers were clicking — There may not be a more athletic team in the country than the Gophers, which is exactly what made their recent struggles so puzzling. They didn’t seem to have any leadership, couldn’t find any chemistry on the floor, didn’t seem to be taking much direction from their coach and just weren’t appearing to be having all that much fun playing together. Funny what the No. 1 team coming to your house can do. What stood out most to me was that the Gophers did a great job of taking what the game and the Hoosiers gave them. If Indiana was going to get stuck with a smaller player on the red-hot Elliott Eliason, the Gophers kept feeding the post. If Minnesota needed a big basket, it would go to the stronger Trevor Mbakwe inside. And when Indiana refused to move away from its zone defense, the Gophers kept taking three-pointers. They weren’t always going in the basket early, but they were clean looks, and kudos to Minnesota for taking them. They eventually started to fall and were what allowed the Gophers to get over the hump midway in the second half. The Gophers have more than a handful of athletic, talented players who can beat you on any given night and that depth is hard to match in the conference. When they’re all on the same page, we saw what they’re capable of.
- Nice to see you again, Trevor Mbakwe. I firmly believe there is no one in the Big Ten, and perhaps the country, who can stop Mbakwe when he’s clicking on all cylinders. He is a most unique type of player, with a motor that revs up to 100 MPH and the body, athleticism and skill set combination that few in America can match. But he’s still, at times, slowed by the recovery from his injury (and perhaps still not allowing himself to go all-out all of the time, psychologically) and his coach takes him out at some odd times — like early in the first half when the Gophers were giving Indiana all they had, Smith perplexingly brought Mbakwe out. Indiana promptly went on a 10-0 run to re-take the lead without Minnesota’s best player on the floor. But in the end, Mbakwe got the minutes he needed and finished with the 21/12 statistical line that was enough to help Minnesota pull off the upset. It was only his third double-figure scoring output since January 23 and his second double-double in that span.
- Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament resume. When you consider if Minnesota is NCAA Tournament-worthy, the most glaring knock on them is the losses that have piled up since the middle of January. The grueling Big Ten has been hard on everyone, but the Gophers have been reeling. That said, their worst losses are at Iowa and at Northwestern (Iowa was on the NCAA bubble for a while and Northwestern is ripe for an upset like that at least once a year), and their strength of schedule is best in the country. They have a pile of quality wins (Michigan State, Memphis, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin) and also took care of USC, Stanford and Florida State in the non-conference. They’re 14th in the RPI, 18th in KenPom.com and should win three of their next four games (including at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament) to seal their fate for the Big Dance.
- What do we make of Indiana? Most believe that this loss is certainly not enough to knock the Hoosiers off the NCAA Tournament one-seed line, given the parity across college basketball this season and Indiana’s overall body of work, and perhaps they can even retain the #1 overall seed. Indiana still controls its own destiny as far as an outright Big Ten championship is concerned, but there are still important games against Ohio State and at Michigan looming to end the season. We know the Hoosiers are deep and can find their scoring in a variety of places (we saw that last night, with eight different guys contributing), but we saw again that Cody Zeller often disappears in big games. When he’s up against bigger, more athletic centers (credit to Mbakwe and Elliott Eliason) he tends to fade away. This is a good team, but perhaps not a great one, that will enter the NCAA Tournament likely as the #1 overall seed but with plenty of vulnerabilities that teams have already exploited this year.