The 2011 Big Ten Tournament gets underway today with a rematch of the regular season finale between the Northwestern Wildcats and Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Wildcats beat Minnesota in the season finale, giving them the #8 seed in the tournament while Minnesota dropped to #9.
The Wildcats started the season 8-0 but struggled down the stretch before beating the Gophers. Overall, NU is 5-13 in the Big Ten Tournament, losing last year in the quarterfinals to Purdue.
Minnesota endured a turbulent season at best, tumbling straight out of a decent national ranking following a 16-4 start and straight to the Big Ten’s ninth seed after losing nine of 10 to close out the year. The Golden Gophers wound up just 6-12 in conference and 17-13 overall, though they did log some nice wins in better days, including versus North Carolina, West Virginia and Purdue. As for the tournament, Minnesota has produced a 10-11 record over the history of this event and made its first-ever appearance in the final last year as the sixth seed in a 90-61 loss to Ohio State.
The winner of this game has the unenviable task of meeting the nation’s top- ranked team in Ohio State for a quarterfinal matchup Friday.
These two teams split the regular-season series with the Wildcats’ 68-57 triumph in Evanston last week avenging an 81-70 defeat January 26 in Gopher country. Minnesota leads the all-time set by a 90-59 count and has taken three of the four meetings from NU in their tournament history together. This will be the third time in four years that the two have matched up in the opening round with the Gophers having produced a 55-52 victory in the last meeting in 2009.
The Golden Gophers fell on hard times over the last month-and-a-half of the season with their lone win in that time coming against an inferior Iowa team. However, Minnesota still features a strong and balanced unit that boasts a number of favorable assets, including the conference’s top-ranked rebounding team (38.0 rpg) and margin (plus-5.1), a league-high 5.5 blocks per game and a Big Ten-low 39.8 shooting percentage against. The Gophers are not without problems of their own, though, and points have been at a premium coming down the stretch. UM’s offense ranks eighth at 69.1 ppg and its scoring defense has slipped to seventh (66.7 ppg). The Gophers are also the dubious owners of the league’s worst free-throw percentage (65.9) and turnover margin (minus-1.83). The senior duo of Trevor Mbakwe and Blake Hoffarber lead the offense with identical 13.7-point averages. Mbakwe adds a Big Ten-best 10.5 rebounds per contest and stands second in the conference in field-goal percentage (58.6). Hoffarber adds a team-high 76 three-pointers on 38.6 percent shooting. Ralph Sampson III checks in at 10.2 points per game to go with 5.4 rebounds and 62 blocks, second only to Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson.
The Wildcats are a prolific three-point shooting team and can pile up the points on offense when their long distance game is on. NU led the Big Ten by far with 266 three-pointers in 2010-11 and shoots a collective 38.1 percent from beyond, good for third in the league. Senior Michael Thompson and junior John Shurna head that charge, ranking third (76) and fifth (64) in the league, respectively, in threes. Shurna’s total dropped at a 47.4-percent accuracy, second only to OSU’s Jon Diebler in the Big Ten, while Thompson connected on 39.8 percent of his triples. Not surprisingly, the duo also stand 1-2 in scoring for the ‘Cats with Shurna’s 16.8 points per game topping the roster. Thompson adds a solid 15.3 ppg and finished seventh in the Big Ten with 4.3 assists per game. Nu topped the conference with 16.8 assists per game. Also chipping in is last season’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Drew Crawford, who gives NU three legit double-figure threats with a 12.1-point average while adding an additional 47 three-pointers. Luka Mirkovic adds 7.8 points and a team-high 5.4 rebounds — not one of the Wildcats’ strong points with a league-low 29.5 boards per contest. Northwestern has the conference’s third best offense, averaging 71.9 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting. The defensive efforts are not so strong, ranking ninth in the Big Ten in allowing 68.0 ppg on a league-high 47.8-percent shooting clip against.
Minnesota still has the firepower to come out and atone for its late-season swoon but you have to wonder where the Gophers’ mindset is right now having fallen so far. NU on the other hand has shown an ability to run with teams at sporadic stages of the year and can give anybody a run for their money if the three-ball is dropping. Just the same, the Buckeyes loom large for either club.
PREDICTION: Minnesota 62 – Northwestern 59 — Minnesota has a big name coach in Tubby Smith. I like the Gophers in a close one.