The enigmatic Texas Longhorns face Tubby Smith's resurgent Minnesota Golden Gophers Thursday night at 6 pm in an opening round game played in Greensboro, NC. Much like Texas, the Gophers received a ticket to the Dance mostly because of their stellar play out of conference, going 12-0 with a signature win over Louisville. In conference was a different story, however, as Tubby Smith's club was a disappointing 6-9 in its last 15 games.
Westbrook is the leader of the Fighting Kevin McHales.
Much like his Kentucky teams, Tubby plays a bunch of kids for a bunch of minutes which means either Smith is trying to of confuse opponents with different personnel matchups or he's not happy with some of the different moving parts of the team. For a team that's been sub .500 since February, I'm guessing it's the latter. With that said, here's who I think will get the majority of minutes on Thursday evening. If I happen to offend the knowledgable Gopher posters with my ignorance of the inner-workings of Minnesota Gopher basketball then I apologize in advance. Although I've watched Minny play a number of times this year, I found that I'd rather have a rabid ocelot gnaw off my tongue than watch most Big 10 games. I promise not to call them Minny anymore if you promise not to metaphorically switch pivot feet Kevin McHale style all over the preview. Treat my review like a single pivot foot and humor me.
Minnesota, for all their faults offensively, actually has a pretty nice complementary backcourt. Not that it's Chris Corchiani to Rodney Monroe complementary, but it's pretty darn solid. Instead of fire and ice, we'll call them simmer and chill. 6-1 sophomore Al Nolen is a nice distributing point guard averaging nearly 5 assists with just 1.8 turnovers a game. Al has been able to create a ton of opportunities for teammates even going against some of the better defensive guards in the nation, but against the elite on ball defenders that Michigan State and Purdue possess, Nolen was a horrifying 7-31 from the floor with a respectable 17-9 assist/turnover ration. Nolen struggles to score, shooting under 30% from three and just 34% overall. He's thinly built which is good news for Texas on-ball defenders used to guarding pseudo-running backs like Byron Eaton, Sherron Collins, and Donald Sloan.
The two guard and Minnesota's stud, is 6-0 Junior Lawrence Westbrook. He's a good perimeter shooter, can put the ball on the deck, and can finish inside after absorbing contact because of his strength. Texas is going to have to play good team defense against Lawrence, and I'm mainly talking about hedging ballscreens set for the Junior, because he'll get Pittman in foul trouble if Dex shows to aggressively. Texas has the length to bother Westbrook's jumper, so if I'm the Horns I entice jumpers and then contest. If he knocks down a couple, you adjust. Allowing Lawrence to penetrate and get in the lane will end up costing Texas dearly.
Damian Johnson is an athletic 6-7 195 lb wing that stuffs stat sheets beyond Clark Kellog's cliched definition of the phrase. Johnson averages nearly 10 points, 2 assists, 5 boards, 2 steals, and 2 blocks per game and plays terrific m2m defense. He'll give Damion James fits if Texas' star forward wants to be a jumpshooter. James must use his strength advantage and take the ball right to Johnson's chest if he wants to be successful. On offense, Johnson is a limited shooter who tries to get points finishing point blank looks either in transition, off of rebounds, or dimes dropped by the Gopher backcourt. Texas can help off of him as long as the rotation includes keeping the athletic forward off the glass.
Sampson is a good shot blocker if no contact is initiated.
Minnesota's center is 6-11 Ralph Sampson the third. If I'm Dex Pittman I'd wear a Chaminade head band for the occasion. Sampson, like his father, is slightly built, but he's blessed with plus athleticism and good timing for blocking shots. Dexter has faced better post defenders and embarrassed them, so this matchup should cause some worry for Tubby and crew. So long as Dex is killing his bunnies. Sampson isn't a polished low post player and he struggles on the offensive glass against clubs with decent size. Again he's looking for dimes he can finish, or face up 10 footers.
Blake Hoffarber is the other wing or third guard depending on when you were born. He's a 6-5 shooter that's looking to spot up from beyond the arc where he's averaging 34% (he shot 43% lasty year). He's not a threat to put it on the deck as he's taken 27 foul shots the entire year. He's a guy that must be guarded off the catch and chased off the jumper. But he's not a dynamic cover so Texas has outs with who they matchup on him. Don't be surprised to see any of Damion James, AJ Abrams, Ward, or Mason on Blake at some point.
The other player of note is 6-11 Colton Iverson. His friends call him CI. He wears a sleeve and a swatch on his left arm and has a supply of temporary tattoos he's collected from Cracker Jack boxes over the years. When his teammates tell him that they've bought a "tight pair of shoes dawg", he tells them to return the shoes for a bigger pair. He's CI, and he'll be on Dex for half the game because he's as tall as Sampson and has a stronger base.
Other Players of Note
Devoe Joseph is a skinny 6-3 freshman who's coming in to shoot the basketball from deep. He's hitting 38%.
Good opportunity to win a bet with your redneck cousin.
Jamal Abu-Shamala is another role player. Texas will accidently leave Shamala open for an easy dunk at least once because our players, handicapped by perfectly reasonable stereotypes, will be confused. I can hear it now, "Damion, you got Abu-Shamala."
"Naaah dawg, coach said I got the white guy."
Shamala is a decent shooter and athlete who's started some games this year.
6-8 sophomore Paul Carter gives the Minny explosive athleticism off the bench.
Keys to the Game
Nolen struggles against solid on ball defenders, especially defenders that have strength. Dogus, Ward, and Mason should be up in Nolen's Jersey picking up at 3/4 court to wear down the slightly built guard. Once Minnesota gets into an offense, then Texas needs to play softer on him and take away driving lanes enticing Nolen to shoot. Help off Nolen to Westbrook, and recover back to Nolen under control should be our cheat sheet.
Attack the Wings
Johnson, Hoffarber, and whomever Minnesota brings off the bench will be undersized vs. James, Johnson, and Atchley. This is one spot where I'd like to see frontcourt stints of Johnson, James and Pittman. Let James pull help away from Pittman along the baseliine while Johnson should be able to pull his man away from the paint with a decent face up game. Lift Pittman fromt he weakside block and then go to work on the undersized wings on the strong side. We'll get buckets and easy rebounding opportunities from the double that's sure to come.
If James isn't attacking the glass, and Johnson is settling for 15 footers, they need to be ripped by the staff. Texas can impose its physical will not only with Dex Pittman, but with James and Gary Johnson against the Gopher wings or third guards.
I think Texas can steal some possessions and get to a favorable tempo against the Gophers by pressing a little with its smaller personnel. Minnesota lacks a good third ballhandler and they don't go very deep at the lead guard position anyway. I'd love to see some pressing or trapping after made foul shots this game in an effort to steal a cheap bucket or two and perhaps wear down the smallish Nolen.
I talked about it earlier, but a big key to this game is defending Westbrook and specifically the ball screen. Minnesota doesn't have the frontcourt talent to pull Dexter away from the basket unless its done with a high ball screen. As a counter, Dexter needs to show only if Westbrook is in shooting range, and even then show only enough to dissuade dribble penetration. Don't go balls to the wall until Westbrook has knocked a couple down. Westbrook is short, so our length can bother his shot by just contesting. Heaven forbid your best player picks up 2 cheap fouls 30 feet from the bucket.
Five minutes of hell would be nice.
I like how Texas matches up here. Minnesota hasn't played good basketball for a couple months now, and I doubt the light just turns on against a good team like Texas.
Please visit JF's great Minnesota Golden Gopher blog From The Barn.