The Matchup: #18 Minnesota (16-1) @ Northwestern (8-6)
Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)
TV: Big Ten Network (1:00PM CT)
Radio: WGN 720 AM
Fun Fact: Tubby Smith has a 423-160 record as a head coach. He is 1-0 inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.
About the Game
The psychological aspects of this game are almost more interesting than the physical aspects. Minnesota is coming off the program’s biggest win in years, whereas Northwestern is coming off its worst loss in recent memory. Also of note, Northwestern began its habitual lead blowing against Minnesota last year in the Big Ten Tournament when the Wildcats ran out to a 16-point advantage before collapsing in on themselves and handing the Gophers a 55-52 win. If Northwestern is to turn things around it somehow seems appropriate that they do so against the Gophers.
Overall talent wise, Minnesota has a significant advantage in athleticism. In fact, this might be the worst matchup for NU this side of the Michigan State Spartans. Not only does Minnesota have two athletic guards in leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook (13.8 ppg) and point guard Al Nolen (7.9 ppg and 5.5apg), but the Gophers also feature talented athletes Paul Carter (5.3 ppg) and Devron Bostick (48% 3PT) off the bench. Minnesota’s three point shooting, 37.3% as a team, could be a problem for Northwestern. Aside from Bostick, Westbrook as well as reserves Blake Hoffarber and Jamal Abu-Shamala have the ability to knock down the three.
The Gophers also feature a good deal of young size much like the Wildcats. If Coach Bill Carmody doesn’t change his staring lineup dramatically, both teams will start freshmen at the power forward and center positions. Minnesota’s power forward is 6-11 Ralph Sampson III. Sampson averages 6.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg and shoots 51.1% in just over 18 minutes a game. The Gopher center is 6-10 Colton Iverson who averages 6.2 ppg 3.9 rpg and shoots 59.4%. The Gophers will try to stick the ball inside to these two guys so the defensive play of Kyle Rowley, John Shurna, Luka Mirkovic, and the rest of the Wildcat front line will be absolutely critical. NU played the 1-3-1 successfully against Purdue until the last 5 minutes of the game when Purdue passed the ball quicker and found the holes in the 1-3-1 for three straight threes. The 1-3-1 if played well can prevent the ball from getting inside, so its likely NU will use it against Minnesota. Therefore, how well Minnesota rotates the ball against that defense may be the difference in the game.
As said above, this game might be won or lost in the players three pounds of brain tissue, not their 190 lbs. of body. Whatever makes the difference, whether mental preparation or physical tools, I’m not sure Northwestern matches up well. Minnesota should have more momentum and they definitely have better talent. Minnesota, 77 Northwestern, 58.