UCLA (25-9) will meet Minnesota (20-12) on the hardwood tonight at 6:57 pm PST in Austin, Texas in the “second” round of the NCAA Tournament. Both squads have had up-and-down seasons, though the Bruins’ culminated in a regular season Pac-12 title. The winner of the pairing will likely face 3-seed Florida in the Round of 32, assuming the Gators can get past Northwestern State.
To help you get psyched up for the marquee March Madness matchup, Go Joe Bruin caught up with Frank Bi, the lead editor of FanSided’s Minnesota site, Gold and Gopher. Frank was kind of enough to offer up some knowledge about Minny, and I returned the favor for UCLA. Here are Frank’s answers from his exclusive Q&A with GJB. My responses can be found in an article on his site.
Q: Minnesota had one of the hottest starts in the country, going 15-1 and moving as high as No. 8 in the AP Poll. However, the Gophers faded down the stretch, dropping 11 of their last 16 games. Do you attribute the decline to simply playing in the Big Ten or did the team have some inherent issues?
A: It’s hard to say one or the either because frankly both contributed to the slide. Big Ten season has always been a challenge for the Gophers but many thought this year was going to be different after Minnesota beat two ranked teams (Mich St and Illinois) in the first three games of the conference season before playing back-to-back against Indiana and Michigan, losing both. It seemed the brutal stretch played with Minnesota’s confidence, which was riding so high before the losing streak. Minnesota still hasn’t broken out of that funk (with the exception of defeating No. 1 Indiana later on I suppose) but it’s tough to tell which Gopher team will show up on game day — the one that scores 44 points and loses by one to Wisconsin or the team that scores 89 points against Duke.
Q: Despite holding impressive wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana, the Gophers also have suffered some tough losses to the likes of Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue. What is the root of Minnesota’s inconsistency? And do you expect that to be a problem in the Big Dance?
A: Yes, Minnesota beat the Spartans, Wisconsin and Indiana but they also lost another game to each of those teams this season. How’s that for inconsistency? Certainly the rigor of a tough schedule had a lot to do with it, but as aforementioned, the back-to-back losses to Indiana and Michigan early in the season definitely changed who the Gophers thought they were. This affected the confidence of several key players, including Rodney Williams, Joe Coleman and Austin Hollins, who have each been slumping to end the season. If any of those players can step up tonight against UCLA and play as well as his best game this season, the Bruins will have their hands full — the same goes for any team Minnesota may face if they advance.
Q: The media (and oddsmakers in Vegas) have pegged Minnesota as the favorite over UCLA, primarily because of the rebounding prowess of Trevor Mbakwe versus the rebound-challenged Bruins. And while that is certainly a major factor, no one is talking about the distinct scoring advantage that UCLA has (74.7 vs. 68.4). Do you think Minnesota will be able to keep up with the Bruins’ scorers?
A: I think it’s fair to say the style of Big Ten basketball is different than the style of the Pac-12, aside from the level of competition. But I’m not worried about the Bruin’s high offensive marks because the Gophers are just as capable of scoring in bunches. Minnesota offensively has been bottled up in conference play and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gophers crack 80 points or even score more than 50 points in a half.
While Shabazz and Anderson are certainly match up nightmares, it’s known they are prone to off-nights. And given Minnesota’s better defense, I think it’s fair to predict that the score will be tight in this game.
Q: Many think that the loser of this game will be without its head coach next year, as Ben Howland and Tubby Smith both seem to be on the hot seat. Do you think Smith will be fired if the Gophers are knocked out by UCLA?
A: Whatever the administration decides to do, Gopher nation will be out in full force demanding Tubby’s head if Minnesota loses in the first round. Minnesota’s new athletic director gave Smith an extension last year that would make it more costly to fire Smith (much to the surprise of fans), but the contract stipulates that both sides will meet at the end of this year to re-discuss the terms of the contract. I don’t see Smith staying another year if the Gophers fail to advance — former Gopher and NBA head coach Flip Saunders seems like he wants the job — but I wouldn’t even go as far as to guarantee Smith will be able to keep his job unless Minnesota advances to the Elite Eight. It’s that kind of atmosphere at the University of Minnesota.