Thursday, February 11, 2010

Game 25: Minnesota @ Northwestern Wildcats

Due to travel and other commitments I won’t be able to post again until after the Minnesota game. Therefore, although this post is the Minnesota preview, I’ll take time to share some other toughts as well.

The Matchup: Minnesota (14-9) @ Northwestern (16-8)

Location: Welsh-Ryan Arena

TV: Big Ten Network (4:00 PM CT Sunday February 15th, 2010)
Radio: WCPT AM 820

Fun Fact: Tubby Smith is 2-1 in his career at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

About the Game
After the loss at Iowa, the Wildcats return home to face a Minnesota. The Gophers are coming off a 71-63 loss at home to Michigan on Thursday. It’s debatable if the Gopher loss to Michigan or NU’s loss to Iowa is worse. The bottom line is that on Tuesday of this week it looked like Northwestern vs Minnesota was going to setup as an NCAA Tournament elimination game. Now, this game is basically for seeding in the Big Ten Tournament. Honestly, that might make the game more critical. If the only way for the Wildcats or the Gophers to make the Big Dance is getting four victories in Indy, having the best possible draw is essential for that task.

Looking at the larger picture for a moment, I’ve always kind of thought that NU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance would come as a result of the winning the Big Ten Tournament (BTT). I’d pretty much made up my mind that NU was in fact going to win the Big Ten Tournament in 2004 after the 8-8 Big Ten season and the BTT record 22 steals in the first round defeat of Penn State. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I do believe this year’s team can win four games in Indianapolis. I think the bigger question, especially after last night is: do the players and coaches wearing the NU gear share that same belief? There is a very big difference between hoping you can do something and truly believing you can do something. I think a lot of Northwestern basketball teams have been great at hoping they would do something great or historic, but I’m not sure in my lifetime I’ve truly seen a team that truly believed in their abilities. A former Northwestern football coach talked about belief without evidence, in basketball I’ve seen NU teams that didn’t believe even though they had evidence.

Getting back to the game Sunday, the Gophers beat the Wildcats 65-61 in Minneapolis, but NU certainly proved they could hang with the Gophers in coming back from 13 points down to actually take the lead before Gopher guard Blake Hoffarber got crazy hot from behind the arc.

After the Iowa game NU should be very aware of three pointers. Bill Carmody said after the game that NU’s players basically ignored the scouting report and didn’t fight through screens. The scouting report on Hoffarber is he’ll torch NU if he gets open, hopefully the good that will come out of the Iowa loss is that won’t happen.

NU’s 1-3-1 against Iowa was pretty bad, except for one nice Alex Marcotullio steal, based on that and Minnesota shooting about 39% as a team from three, you’d think NU ought to scrap the 1-3-1 on Sunday. However, Minnesota also has trouble with turnovers, and the 1-3-1 produced a bunch in Minneapolis. If I were Bill Carmody, I would start this game in the 1-3-1. If it works and causes TOs, I’d stick in it for the duration. If Minnesota gets Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook hot from the outside in the first few possessions, I’d get out of the 1-3-1 instantaneously.

On offense, Northwestern feel victim to Minnesota’s pressure and Ralph Sampson III’s size in the first game. Sampson kept Luka Mirkovic to only 6 points and blocked or altered a ton of NU inside looks. If NU is to win Mirkovic needs to have perhaps his best effort ever. He needs to not back down and play soft (like he did Wednesday), but needs assert himself early and show he isn’t intimidated by Sampson or Colton Iverson’s size.

Luka and his teammates also need to get much more aggressive in how they go to the hoop. With Sampson, Iverson, Paul Carter, and Damian Johnson inside, Minnesota will block finger roles. When inside, NU needs to go up strong, put their shoulder to the hoop, and if possible even try to DUNK the ball. I can’t say from personal experience (unless you count an 8-foot hoop) what dunking a basketball feels like, but I’m pretty sure if I could dunk, I wouldn’t finger role layups. One of the myths of Northwestern fandom is that Bill Carmody doesn’t like dunks. This is categorically untrue, but I can see how watching NU’s soft attempts at the hoop might lead to this myth. In practice the next few days, Carmody and the staff need to extort aggressiveness from the players in every area, offense, defense, rebounding, coming on and off court, filling up water cups, and anything else that’s going to happen Sunday. By nature Tubby Smith teams are relentlessly aggressive. If you can’t meet their aggressive nature, you lose to them. NU is 1-6 against Smith since he took over in Minnesota. Many of those games have been close, but I honestly believe the difference is that NU almost always sleepwalks for a portion of the game while the Gophers stay aggressive. This either leads to NU blowing a big lead (BTT two years ago) or NU getting in a big hole (07-08 regular season, at Minnesota last year, BTT last year, earlier this year) and not being able to overcome that hole. The only NU win against Minnesota under Smith was last year after NU blew the huge home lead to Purdue and as a result the Wildcats came out fired up with as much urgency and intensity for a single game as any NU team in recent memory. That team needs to show up on Sunday. If they do this game will really be something to see. If they don’t, if we see typical NU sleepwalking for periods of time, it’ll be a good day to be a Gopher.

From reading this post you probably have a pretty good idea of the type of pregame speech I’d be giving Sunday afternoon. I doubt Bill Carmody will be giving that speech, though. He just doesn’t seem to be that type of fire-up coach. That’s actually fine. 95% of the time I perfer coaches be like Carmody. Guys who are fire-breathers all the time just aren’t realistic to me. Nobody can be pumped up all the time. It's just not possible and probably isn't effective after a while either. Against Tubby, though, I'd like to see Carmody and Wildcats get pumped up. It doesn't have to come from Carmody, though. As often discussed by Tom Izzo, good teams are more player-coached than coach-coached on game day. I somehow doubt Jeremy Nash is reading this blog, but I know he’s started to do some player-coaching in the NU huddle and locker room and I’m hoping that based on seven career games against Tubby Smith’s Gophers (more than any other team), that he’s seeing the same need for aggressiveness that I am. So, I’m putting my trust in Northwestern’s one healthy senior to rally his teammates to get aggressive and to start believing instead of just hoping. Northwestern, 71 Minnesota, 68


Damian said...

Ryan, you and I are very similar NU fans. Both optimistic but critical when we need to be. Both understanding of the team's limitations. Perhaps it's your familiar voice that makes your blog such an enjoyable read. The thing that struck me is that you too believe that NU's first Dance will come by way of a BTT championship. I don't know why I believe that; maybe it's just easier to think of them winning 4 games in a row than it is finishing in the upper half of the conference? Doesn't make sense, but with this team, I think "doesn't make sense" will eventually make the most.

Damian said...

Bob Knight made a good point about blocks during tonight's Mich-Minn game. Musburger was saying that Minn is the best blocking team in the conference. Knight said that as a coach, he never really worried too much about good shot-blocking teams. He said that oftentimes a block doesn't change possession anyway. Although he didn't say it, I think he was also suggesting that you shouldn't alter your game plan around a shot blocker; otherwise, you're conceding too much to your opponent.

I hope Luka could hear those words, because we need him on Sunday. Even if - on occasion - Minnesota blocks him, he'll need to force the issue.

G1000 said...

I'll go with the Cats too. They're typically pretty good in games when they don't make much difference anymore. Cats 70, Minnestoa 66