Shabazz Muhammad (15), Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
No. 6-seed UCLA’s opponent in the “second” round of the NCAA Tourney is the No. 11-seed Minnesota Golden Gophers. Many are picking Minnesota to upset the Bruins. We as UCLA fans know the Bruins strengths and weaknesses. What we don’t know is if the Bruins can pull together and be dangerous sans Jordan Adams.
We saw the Bruins lose to Oregon on Saturday night, but in fairness they were fatigued, not used to life without Jordan and in some respects perhaps had “less to play for” than the Ducks. The Bruins caught a slight break in not playing until Friday. Will that be enough time for Coach Howland to reset the Bruins and for the team to gather itself for a run? We shall see. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the Gophers.
Minnesota started the season red hot, winning 15 of their first 16 games. The first half of the season saw them beat a good Memphis squad, but get manhandled by Duke. They went 2-0 versus Pac-12 opponents, beating Stanford by 3 at a neutral site, and Southern Cal away by 14. Minnesota looked ready to steamroll the Big Ten, going 3-0 with wins over Michigan St., Northwestern and Illinois, and garnering a No. 8 ranking nationally.
Then they played Indiana. IU raced to a 52-29 halftime lead, only to fritter away their 23-point buffer as Minnesota came roaring back to pull within three with 18 seconds remaining in the game. Indiana won, but Minnesota proved it could hang with the Hoosiers. After that loss, the wheels came off for Minnesota. But the question is: why?
Minnesota staggered through the last 16 games of the season, going 5-11 in that stretch. Like the Bruins, they are truly an enigmatic team; capable of beating IU, and then 8 days later finding a way to lose to Nebraska. Minnesota was terrible on the road, going 3-8 overall, and 1-8 in the Big Ten. However, the Gophers were strong at home, going 15-2 overall and 7-2 in conference, including impressive wins over IU, MSU, Illinois and Wisconsin. They were 2-2 on neutral floors.
Looking at their last 10 games, the Gophers went 3-7 and had trouble scoring. They only broke 60 points three times over that stretch, versus pathetic Penn State (73 points), anemic Purdue (73 points) and to save face, Indiana (77 points). The other seven games they averaged 51 points. Their starters averaged a combined 44.7 PPG over the last 10, and their reserves roughly 12.9. There’s not a lot of scoring punch for the Golden Gophers looking up and down the line up. Coach Tubby Smith substitutes fairly liberally, but aside from spelling his starters, the bench hasn’t produced much. One reason might be the decline in production of Rodney Williams. Williams averaged 12.2 PPG in 2012, and was averaging approximately 12 through Minnesota’s first 23 games, but then he hurt his shoulder. He only sat out one game, but has since averaged only 5.4 PPG.
Tubby Smith, Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Coach Smith has not been reluctant to criticize his players this season. Reviewing their game recaps, Smith has called his players out for everything from lack of discipline and effort, to poor shot selection and defensive effort. Their implosion down the stretch may have been a sign of a team losing heart. Another sign of internal trouble was the removal of Andre Hollins and Joe Coleman for two games late in the season. Though the pair did end up back in the starting line up for the last two games of the season.
Relatively speaking, UCLA is the hotter, more talented team. The Bruins have more skilled players. Minnesota appears to just “throw bodies at you.” As has been noted many places, Minnesota is at least a great rebounding team, which is an acknowledged weakness of the Bruins. If games were judged by rebounds, UCLA would be something like 3-31; but they’re not. Games are judged by which team outscores the other. If the Bruins had Adams available, the smart money would have been on them. Without Adams, the Bruins are an unknown quantity with a body shortage. This may well be the perfect game to let freshman center Tony Parker get some extended minutes banging with Minnesota’s bigs.
If you’re looking for a clue as to which way this game will go, there may be none more disturbing for Bruin fans than how Minnesota played Indiana this season. As an Indiana native, I have observed that IU is nothing more than UCLA with a strong center. Both rely heavily on the transition game and opportunities early in the shot clock. Neither likes half court, plodding games, or having to play protracted periods of defense. Indiana almost blew it the first time they faced the Gophers because they didn’t play defense in the second half. The second time IU faced Minnesota the Gophers had lost 4-of-5 games, but still beat Indiana, 77-73. Minnesota destroyed IU on the boards in that victory.
Minnesota is a shaky, but dangerous foe for the thin Bruins. They feature steady guard play, persistent man-to-man defense and interior strength. Doom and gloom seems to be the prediction for UCLA, but it sez here this is not Ben Howland’s last game as the Bruins’ head coach.
Prediction: UCLA 67—Minnesota 63.