25 January 2010

Countdown to Northwestern at Minnesota

Northwestern (14-5, 3-4 Big Ten) travels to Williams Arena to take on Minnesota (12-7, 3-4) at 8PM Central on Tuesday January 26. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network and radio coverage is on WIND 560-AM and wgnradio.com.

Minnesota leads the series 99-58. Last year the two teams met three times with each team defending its homecourt and the Gophers winning the rubber match in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern has had recent success up at the Barn winning three straight games starting in 2005. That was during the Dan Monson days, and Northwestern has lost both games in Minneapolis since Tubby Smith arrived on the scene. On the whole Tubby has had Carmody's goat as Minnesota has won 5 of 6 meetings over the past couple of years.

Minnesota has been somewhat of a disappointment this year. The Gophers returned all of its key players from last year's team that made the NCAAs. The Gophers also added a nice freshman class -- headlined by Royce White -- in the spring to what was already a deep team. Despite all of the momentum behind the program the Gophers got off to a slow start in the non-conference with three straight losses at one point including what was then considered an embarrassing loss to Portland (they aren't really too bad it turns out). The Gophers did manage a nice win against Butler on a neutral court, and several huge blowouts of cupcakes have impressed some of the various computer ranking sites out there.

In Big Ten play the Gophers have been erratic. The Gophers best victory was a home game against OSU when Evan Turner was still getting his sea legs back; their worst loss was overtime loss to Indiana. That loss is part of Minnesota's current three game conference losing streak (the other two losses were to Michigan State including a nail biter at the Barn).

In other news Al Nolen, the starting point guard, has been ruled academically ineligible. The Gophers are currently challenging that ruling (apparently Mr Nolen had a bunch of incompletes during the fall due to some family troubles), but currently it doesn't look like he will back at all this season. Nolen's abesnce is in addition to Royce White's season-long absence due to legal issues.

Minnesota is desperate for a victory. A home loss to NCAA tourney bid rival Northwestern would be a serious blow to the Gophers. Northwestern would like to win this game as it would help to "build the resume," but the urgency is not quite the same as it was in the game defending the home court against the Illini.

What to expect? This is going to be a difficult game for Northwestern to win. Williams is a tough place to play, and Tubby Smith has shown that he can coach his team to victory over the quirky Wildcats. Minnesota has athletes all around its lineup which traditionally spells trouble for Northwestern. NU needs to get off to a fast start and heat up from outside to keep the crowd out of the game and build upon the self doubt that most likely has begun to creep into the back of the Gophers' minds during their three game losing streak. Even then it won't be easy.