When the Golden Gophers entered their selection show party on Sunday, they couldn’t have aspired for a result much better than they actually got.
Minnesota landed on the high end of all national projections, snatching a 5-seed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament – a rare miss for Mr. Joe Lunardi, who may need to recalibrate his brainy bracketological formulas after underestimating the Gophers for most of the season.
Naturally, as each alleged favorite likely experiences, the Gophers were quickly placed on upset alert against the plucky 12-seed Middle Tennessee State. (What is a Blue Raider, asked our Mike Gelfand? Well, what is a Golden Gopher, I counter?)
The 12-over-5 upset is everybody’s favorite to predict, considering it’s happened 10 out of a possible 20 times over the past five years and has occurred at least once in 28 of the last 32 seasons. Last year, Yale beat Baylor and Arkansas-Little Rock upended Purdue in two of the four matchups.
If those tidbits aren’t enough to open Minnesota’s eyes, the name of their Thursday opponent will. MTSU upset Michigan State 90-81 in a 15-versus-2 shocker last March, shooting an outrageous 56 percent. What many fans forget, though, is that the Blue Raiders lost their second-round game to 10th-seeded Syracuse by a 75-50 score and shot below 30 percent.
Gopher fans shouldn’t be intimidated by last year’s Blue Raiders squad, but this year’s will surely provide enough of its own challenges. MTSU (30-4) ran away with Conference USA and beat the SEC’s Vanderbilt and Ole Miss in the non-conference season, though it’s worth mentioning Minnesota also beat Vanderbilt and made quick work of an even better SEC team in Arkansas.
In a season where the Gophers have been routinely underestimated, nothing seems to have changed.
The Raiders have some intimidating height on their roster with Brandon Walters (6-10) and JaCorey Williams (6-8), two of their top three scorers. MTSU doesn’t, however, seem to use its height to the utmost advantage. Nationally speaking, the Gophers have the highest per game block total of any team in the land. Numero uno.
The Blue Raiders are 229th nationally — and 11th in their own conference. That shouldn’t strike much fear into Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch as they attempt to establish a low-post presence. The Gophers also racked up the 15th most rebounds nationwide compared to the Blue Raiders’ standing of 191th. (In fairness, MTSU consistently outrebounded its opponents, which might indicate a slower pace in Conference USA.)
What the Blue Raiders do best is take care of the ball, attempt smart shots and shoot a high percentage. They are 23rd in turnover margin in the nation.
But they lack balance.
Three players – Walters, Williams and Giddy Potts – scored over 63 percent of the team’s points this season. The next best, Tyri Dixon, averaged less than 6 per game.
The Gophers have four double-figure scorers and two on the verge. Their fourth-best scorer, Dupree McBrayer, still has 19 games this season scoring in double digits. Their sixth-best scorer, Reggie Lynch, has 16 such games and was the driving force offensively in Minnesota’s Big Ten Tournament win over Michigan State. Playing the Gophers this year has been death by a thousand cuts as the Maroon and Gold routinely have three or four players carrying the load, whereas the Blue Raiders should be more easily shut down, or at least susceptible to an off night if their Big 3 goes cold.
The greater issue is the Gophers’ lack of bodies.
The other concern that’s been floated around is the absence of Akeem Springs, who hurt his Achilles last Friday. The anxiety is valid, but moreso from a minutes standpoint than a scoring perspective.
Springs’ season took a downturn in his final seven games as he saw his playing time reduced to fewer than 30 minutes in each game and scored in double figures just twice since Feb. 8. The Gophers also went 6-1 in those games, meaning Springs’ decline didn’t detrimentally affect the team.
The greater issue is the Gophers’ lack of bodies. McBrayer stepped in to fill Springs’ starting role against Michigan, but Richard Pitino opted to roll with only the guys he trusted and play McBrayer all 40 minutes in the Big Ten semi-finals, thereby keeping the team to a six-man rotation (excluding one minute from freshman Michael Hurt).
Hurt and Ahmad Gilbert are the likeliest candidates to step in and play a handful of minutes, but neither has contributed much this season. Hurt appeared in 14 conference games and scored just three total points. Gilbert played just eight total minutes in four conference games, scoring one point. Both, in theory, are gifted 3-point shooters but have not shown a confidence that could rival Springs’.
Minnesota will also miss Springs’ defense, which remained solid even when the senior was struggling to shoot. Michigan shot 54 percent in Saturday’s game sans Springs and scored 47 points in the first half. The Gophers, who prided themselves on perimeter defense all season, will need to stay strong closing out on the 3-point line against the Blue Raiders, a middle of the road 3-point shooting team.
In the end, the loss of Springs is certainly a negative, but it’s not the end-of-the-world development many national outlets are pushing to justify an upset bid. The Gophers should be the better team on the interior, where they’ve played a physical brand of basketball all year. They should also be more battle-tested in a close game. While the Blue Raiders have only played four games decided by single digits since Jan. 1, the Gophers have played 12.
Perhaps the national doubt is all the Gophers need to keep them fueled. Most sportsbooks have Minnesota as a one-point underdog despite being a 5-seed. For comparison, other 5s Iowa State, Notre Dame and Virginia are all favored by six or seven points.
In a season where the Gophers have been routinely underestimated, nothing seems to have changed, even after a gesture of respect from the selection committee.