|Minnesota Golden Gophers
|Saturday, February 25, 3:00 PM EST
|Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)
|21-7, 9-6 Big Ten
I feel like a broken record writing this, but Penn State comes into this game off a heartbreaking loss in which they came just short of pulling the upset at home against a very talented Purdue team. After a few days of rest, they’re back on the road to take on the streaking Minnesota Golden Gophers who are finding ways to win in close games.
Winning their last 6 games, Minnesota has responded well after losing 5 straight during January. A win at Maryland on Wednesday night has the Gophers at 4th place in the Big Ten with 3 games remaining, and they seem all but a lock to make it to the NCAA Tournament this year (the first time under HC Richard Pitino).
Penn State comes into this game with their own winning-streak (yes, really), having won each of the last 4 games against Pitino’s Gophers. Since falling to the Gophers three times in the 2013-14 season, Chambers and Co. are undefeated, including a win at Williams Arena two years ago.
One team’s streak will end on Saturday.
Scouting the Opposition
The Gophers hang their hat on their defensive prowess, outstanding at both defending the 3-pt shot, and blocking shots with Reggie “The Rim Protector” Lynch. Defense was not the story-line in their most recent win over Maryland, as a balanced scoring attack that saw 5 players reach double-figures allowed Minnesota to score 55 points in the second half. To refresh your memory, the Gophers scored a total of 50 points in their loss at Penn State earlier this year. In that loss they had only one player, Reggie Lynch, reach double-figures.
Minnesota will look to Nate Mason often as a spark for their offense. While he isn’t the most efficient scorer, he is their most prolific, and can get it done in a myriad of ways. Additionally, Dupree McBrayer and Akeem Springs are dangerous from 3-pt range. When they’re hot, this is a much harder team to guard.
The keys to this game are two-fold. Penn State must attack Lynch and try to force him out of the game early with foul trouble to open things up inside. The Lions have struggled to shoot the 3 lately, and can’t afford to make this a jump-shot competition. On the other end, they must lock down the Gophers’ 3-pt shooting game. Penn State did a great job of limiting opportunities in their first match-up, and will need a similar performance on Saturday.
What to Watch For
Reggie Lynch had a team-high 12 points and added 6 rebounds in his first game against the Nittany Lions. His counterpart, Mike Watkins, came off the bench and put up 15 points and 15 rebounds to help carry Penn State towards victory. This match-up will be crucial again on Saturday. Each player has had struggles with foul trouble, but Lynch to a greater degree. If one or the other has to spend extended time on the bench it should help swing the game into the opposing team’s favor.
More impressive to me than scoring 89 points at Maryland on Wednesday, the Gophers only committed 6 turnovers (only 2 in the 2nd half!). They had 20 when they played Penn State, I expect the number to be closer to 20 than 6 at the end of the game. The Nittany Lions defense can keep them in any game, and it will be important for them to pressure the Gophers early and often.
Lastly, I think this game will be decided by the performances of the 6th man for each team. McBrayer came off the bench and scored 18 points, helping to spark the run that allowed Minnesota to beat Maryland this week. Meanwhile, Payton Banks has really struggled of late. Penn State will need Banks to find his form from beyond the arc, or at least shut down McBrayer.
It’s tempting to pick Penn State in this one. They’ve done it before, and Minnesota is not a team that wins through prolific offense. Carr and Stevens will need to drive the ball and collapse the defense to force fouls or easy shots, but that is easier said than done. Playing in front of their home crowd, I think Minnesota avoids the let-down and comes away with the win. A hot start for the Gophers, coupled with an early scoring drought for the Lions will have Penn State playing catch-up the whole game.
Minnesota 74, Penn State 65