Minnesota (13-4, 2-2) almost had that big, resume-bolstering win against Michigan State on Sunday -- until a second-half stretch of more than 13 minutes without a field goal pushed the game into overtime, where the Gophers offense was arguably worse, and the then-No 5. Spartans escaped with a 87-75 victory.
But Minnesota has another golden opportunity to get one of those pivotal top-25 wins on Thursday night as 11th-ranked Ohio State (15-2, 2-2) -- loser of two straight -- comes into Williams Arena.
Here are my five things to watch for:
The three-ball: Nearly 40 percent of the Gophers shot attempts this season have been from deep (388 of 975 FGAs). Minnesota has hit on 35.1 percent of its triple tries. But Ohio State comes in as the eighth-best team in the country when it comes to defending the arc -- the Buckeyes have only allowed opponents to hit on 26.9 percent of their long balls. So this seems like your classic scenario of an unstoppable force clashing with an immovable object. And if what Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said on Wednesday is true, the Gophers aren't budging for anyone. They will stick to their game plan of chucking up the deep balls -- regardless of what the defense does.
"Bombs away," Pitino said. "We will keep shooting."
Battle of the backcourts: When looking at almost any category on KenPom.com, you can find Buckeyes guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott right next to Gophers point guard DeAndre Mathieu. Statistically, they're nearly identical.
Here's a sampling of the numbers (Big Ten ranking in parenthesis):
Effective FG % Assist Rate Turnover % Steal %
Mathieu: 52.4 (21) 31.7 (2) 21.8 (64) 3.96 (5)
Craft: 50.5 (26) 26.8 (7) 22.2 (67) 4.24 (4)
Scott: 53.2 (19) 27.2 (5) 24.5 (70) 4.67 (1)
The numbers suggest the guards are mirror-images of one another, though Pitino made it seem like his point guard isn't there, yet -- at least not on the defensive end.
"Craft and Scott are two of the best perimeter defenders in the country," Pitino said. "I can't say that about DeAndre just yet."
Pitino also said Craft is a better distributor than Mathieu, though the assist rate suggests otherwise.
If Minnesota is to beat Ohio State on Thursday night, Mathieu and his backcourt mate Andre Hollins will likely have to score often against Scott and Craft -- something that's not easy to do against one of the best defensive backcourts in the nation.
Austin Hollins, what's up?: Seriously, where has this guy been? Hollins averaged 13.5 points per game in the nonconference slate. Through four Big Ten games, he's averaged just 7.8 on 10 for 36 shooting (27.8 percent). He's been held under seven points three times in four conference games and committed and costly turnover in Minnesota's overtime loss to Michigan State. Had he performed to his normal standard in all four of Minnesota's Big Ten games to this point, the Gophers could easily be looking at a 4-0 conference record, and probably a national ranking. Look, Austin Hollins is a good basketball player, who's more than capable of getting it done in the Big Ten. He's showed it in the past. But he needs to start showing that in the present if the Gophers are to seriously compete in the conference.
Turning the Buckeyes over: Minnesota is 19th in the nation at turning opponents over (11.9 steals %, according to KenPom). But on the flip side, Ohio State is the top team in the land at protecting the ball (Only allowing opponents a steals percentage of 4.9%). Remember that immovable object-unstoppable force analogy I used up in the three-point subject line, yeah, it applies here as well. The Gophers are 12-0 win they win or tie the turnover battle -- 1-4 when they lose it. Minnesota has to turn its opponents over to win basketball games -- that just may be a little harder to do tonight.
Four guards?: Pitino has went to a four-guard lineup at times this season (often featuring Andre Hollins, DeAndre Mathieu, Austin Hollins and Malik Smith), and it's had decent success. The concern with doing that of course is the other team will beat you on the interior -- both in low-post scoring and on the boards. But the Buckeyes often feature a fairly small lineup. Junior forward LaQuinton Ross starts at the four spot for the Buckeyes, and while his 6'8" stature screams power forward candidate, he is primarily a perimeter player and wouldn't be an awful matchup for Austin Hollins. I expect Pitino to throw the four-guard lineup out there for a decent chunk of time, particularly if the Gophers fall behind at any point in the game.
KenPom.com score prediction: Ohio State 66, Gophers 64 (Minnesota has a 40% chance of victory)