Game 28: Minnesota Preview

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Fresh off the big upset over Michigan, the Lions look to start a winning streak versus Minnesota.

Who: Minnesota Golden Gophers (19-9, 7-8)
When: Today, 3:00pm EST
Where: Williams Arena
TV: Big Ten Network

I thought this game had some intriguing potential just a short week ago. The Gophers were really struggling on the brink of an epic collapse with #1 Indiana coming to town. PSU clearly had found some new life in their offense and was playing better and better, but #4 Michigan was coming to State College. The assumption was both teams would lose their weekly games to set up a huge pressure-cooker for Minnesota and their NCAA hopes assuming they were 6-9 in the Big Ten today. Penn State would have a great opportunity to play spoiler for their first conference win.

Oops.

So now both teams head into the game off of monumental upsets. It has become a guessing game - who will have the bigger emotional letdown?

Tubby Smith's team has had a rollercoaster of a season, jumping out to a 15-1 start and looking the part of a Big Ten and Final Four contender. But the meat of their conference schedule brought them back down to earth. They had lost 8 of their last 11 heading into the IU showdown, including road losses to Northwestern and Iowa (a game where they saw a 21-5 lead turn into a 72-51 loss) and a home loss to Illinois. Their win over the Hoosiers solidified their already-good résumé for March Madness and with a much easier schedule this last week, the Gophers have a chance to regain their form heading into the conference tournament.

But first, they must defeat a Penn State team playing their best basketball of the season.

When Minnesota Has The Ball

Minnesota Offense Stat Penn State Defense
1.04 PPP (4) Efficiency 1.07 PPP (11)
47.7% (5) Efficient FG% 49.8% (11)
42.0% (1) Offensive Rebounding% 30.0% (5)
22.2% (12) Turnover% 16.7% (10)
40.1 (3) Free Throw Rate 58.9 (12)

Offensively, the Gophers have been a mixed bag in conference play. They've had some really dominating performances (1.4 PPP vs Nebraska) and some major duds (0.65 PPP at Ohio State). As you can see, their achilles heel has been turnovers. They've committed over 15 turnovers in 8 of their conference games. Penn State isn't a pressure defense, especially without Tim Frazier, but they really did a great job harassing Michigan with their 3/4-court 1-2-2 press. The Lions will have to force turnovers because there's no stopping the Gophers on the offensive glass.

The biggest worry for the Nittany Lions has to be the Gophers' non-PSI (Penn State Inflated) free throw rate. Minnesota is the 3rd best team in the conference at drawing free throw attempts, but they're the only remaining team to not have played Penn State yet. With Penn State being by far the worse hackers in the league (conference average free throw rate is 34.8), that's pretty impressive. If the Lions return to their old fouling habits, they won't stand much of a chance at stopping the Gophers' attack.

When Penn State Has The Ball

Penn State Offense Stat Minnesota Defense
0.91 PPP (12) Efficiency 1.04 PPP (9)
42.3% (12) Efficient FG% 48.9% (8)
29.7% (9) Offensive Rebounding% 31.8% (7)
19.2% (9) Turnover% 17.8% (7)
32.7 (6) Free Throw Rate 38.2 (8)

Of course, PSU's numbers are pretty terrible thanks to their season-long shooting woes, but perhaps the last four games are a more accurate sample size. The Nittany Lions have scored at a 1.09 PPP clip in those games thanks to a staggering 52.0% eFG%. Much of the recent success of the Lions' offense has been attributed to Sasa Borovnjak and deservedly so (14.3 PPG, 65% FG%), but it's the Lions 3-point explosion that has fueled this offensive renaissance. They've made 32 of 74 attempts (43.2%!!) in the last two weeks. Even with that outburst, they are still a sub-30% as a team on the season to illustrate how bad this team was before behind the arc.

DJ Newbill was 8-49 for the season from three until the Iowa game (16%). He's made 8 of his last 16 attempts (50%). Nick Colella, the career 30% 3-point specialist, also has converted timely threes and has been 6-12 (50%) in his last four games. Then you have Jermaine Marshall, who exploded against the Wolverines for 6 3PM and has converted 13 of his last 28 3-point shots (46%). How long will this hot shooting keep up?

The good news is the Gophers' defense is weaker than Iowa's, Michigan's, and Illinois'. They've been thoroughly mediocre in every department, including 3-point defense (37.4%). The Lions could keep their momentum rolling at the Barn if they keep up their shooting. There's no reason to be short on confidence after breaking through with one of the upsets of the year in college basketball.

Prediction

Minnesota has a lot to play for, but Penn State is playing pressure-free, fun basketball. Ross Travis returns home to play against family and friends, and they're going to need the Chaska, MN native to come up big against the Gophers' front line. If the recent Penn State offense shows up, this could be another high scoring affair as it doesn't appear the Lions will be able to offer much resistance to Minnesota's attack. They've struggled with guarding smaller guards all season long, so Andre Hollins could bust loose, but then again, Chambers' masterful plan against Trey Burke shutdown one of the nation's best players.

It should be a good one at the Barn today, if jet lag isn't an issue for either team. Penn State still hasn't won a conference road game in 2 years, so it's hard to expect one here. KenPom likes Minnesota big, 73-56, but the recent play of both of these teams suggest otherwise. That said, if PSU's 3-point shooting regresses towards their mean, and it almost assuredly will at some point, it could get ugly for Pat Chambers' team.

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