Tomorrow afternoon Indiana will have its first true “yardstick” game of the season (I do not use the metric system, but yardstick does sound better than ruler). Georgetown, North Carolina and Butler were valiant non-conference opponents, but it’s Big Ten season now, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers are coming to town.
The Golden Gophers have become the party-crasher of the Big Ten. Last year, with no record of an RSVP, they called the cops on the ongoing Indiana Is Back Party – Bloomington’s best Mardi Gras impression after wins against Kentucky and Ohio State – stifiling the Hoosiers 77-74 at Assembly Hall.
Insulted by yet another invitation-less offseason, the Gophers have decided to crash the conference party, ironically making it the best party in the country. At a surprising 15-1, the Gophers have spent all year climbing up the rankings, settling in comfortably at No. 8 after dismantling No. 18 Michigan State, Northwestern and No. 12 Illinois to open their Big Ten season.
The Hoosiers still reside at No. 5, but are coming off a sluggish performance against Iowa and more of walkthrough than a game against Penn State. What’s encouraging for the Hoosiers is that they’ve patted their Big Ten record with two early road wins, a rare commodity for the Hoosiers and something that will come at a premium this year. What’s not encouraging is the road ahead, which begins with the red hot Golden Gophers Saturday at Assembly Hall.
What I like: Indiana
Home is where the heart is
When the nucleus of a good team knows itself to the point it permeates to the fans, that’s when you know you really have something special.
Not only is Saturday Indiana’s Big Ten home opener, but it will mark the 47th day since the Hoosiers have hosted a meaningful opponent. That’s entirely too long for this level of fan base to go without tantalizing an opponent.
Assembly Hall will be ludicrously loud. The place is built for sound, anyways, with the bleachers beginning mere inches from the court and climbing high into the rafters, with the echoes and banners and “Hoo-Hoo-Hoosiers” chants marauding the opponent from all angles. When IU takes control this crowd can avalanche on top of an opponent.
Make no mistake, this is a resilient Gophers team as well coached as any by Tubby Smith. But it will be tough to upset this Hoosiers team – mightily improved in their own regard – at home tomorrow afternoon with a fresh crowd behind them.
Christian Watford finding his rhythm
I made note of it last week in Part I of my quotes of the year column: Christian Watford is going to start showing up. On Monday night, he buried Penn State from the first possession. What’s significant is not his 16 points or eight rebounds, but the aggressive bent he played with from the opening tip.
He played with patience, poise and assertion – three traits we’ve rarely seen from Watford this season. With so much talent and balance around him, Watford has struggled to fit in when being asked to not carry the load. He’s no longer being asked to be the go-to guy, but merely one of IU’s go-to guys. If you break Watford down game by game, the games in which he works inside/out he plays well. When he tries to work outside/in he struggles to find his rhythm.
Against Penn State Watford took control early, and carried that confidence throughout the game. He mixed things up for a change, a style many have been begging of him for years now, and kept the Nittany Lions guessing. Look for Tom Crean to try to get Watford some easy buckets early, and his improving play to continue.
Defense Defense Defense
Last year the Hoosiers were prone to upset because of their underwhelming defense. When the shots weren’t falling, there was no strength to fall back on. This offseason, it was a priority of Tom Crean to change that.
The Hoosiers held Iowa to 33.3 percent shooting and Penn State to 31.7 percent in their first two Big Ten games. IU also held them to a combined 22.8 percent shooting from 3-point range. While the opponents may have been less than stellar, it was not hard to notice how abysmal Iowa and Penn State looked on offense. It was a product of excellent, relentless defense.
“We knew at the end of last year that we needed to be a better defensive team, a more physical defensive team and a better defensive rebounding team,’’ Crean said. “The bottom line was that we defended for 40 minutes. I thought our guys were extremely locked in.”
It’s not often that Tom Crean gives his team 40 minutes worth of credit after a game, so you know the Hoosiers have turned it up a notch on defense, something that’s imperative to competing with a physical Minnesota team. And nothing fuels this crowd at Assembly Hall like a great steal by Oladipo or block by Zeller.
What I like: Minnesota
Balance and Physicality
This may not be a group of highly touted recruits, but it’s a team assembled by Tubby Smith that can play with anybody. The Gophers are one of the most physical teams in the country, and that’s true inside and out.
Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe lead an imposing front court and will give Cody Zeller a true test tomorrow. Mbakwe, who has been frequently plagued by injury, looks healthier every game and thrives on wreaking havoc all over the court. According to KenPom, Mbakwe is the best rebounder in the Big Ten.
Williams has been stellar night in and night out as well averaging 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He’s developed into a senior leader on this team and paired with Mbakwe, is able to kill opposing momentum quite frequently with the ability to fly around the court.
Minnesota’s dangerous front court is fed by sophomore Andre Hollins, who has emerged as the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game on 46.5 percent shooting. He shoots it well and he shoots it efficiently, including an outstanding performance against at Memphis earlier this year when he posted 41 points on 12-of-16 shooting.
Minnesota’s No. 8 ranking might be a surprise, but it is certainly not unearned. Aside from an 89-71 loss to Duke in November, the Gophers have beaten a number of reputable opponents including Memphis, Florida St, Michigan State, Northwestern and Illinois.
They’re not afraid to play on the road, and build confidence as the game goes on.
Something’s gotta give
It’s no secret that the Hoosiers have not faired well against teams that play physical. Both Georgetown and Butler played aggressive against IU and had major success. Georgetown took the Hoosiers to overtime but couldn’t finish the game. And we all know what happened against Butler.
Even more important, however, is that we all remember what happened when Minnesota came to Bloomington last year and crashed the party. You never forget somebody that crashes your party. This game is going to come down to the little things: offensive rebounds, turnovers, 50/50 balls. If the Hoosiers can control those factors, the big shots will come and they will fall.
The Hoosiers have been off since Monday – if you consider Monday’s route of Penn State a game – and have had ample time to prepare for the Gophers. And rest assured, Tom Crean will have them ready to play.
Let’s just hope he has an enforcer or two at the door.