The Minnesota Gophers face their toughest non-conference test of the year in the Miami Hurricanes as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.
The No. 12 Minnesota Gophers are back home to take on the No. 10 Miami Hurricanes on Wednesday night in what amounts to be their biggest non-conference game of the season. Boasting a 7-0 record, the Gophers already have quality non-conference wins over Providence and Alabama. In turn, a win over Miami would simply be the icing on the cake to a superb non-conference resume.
Of course, the latest victory over No. 25 Alabama wasn’t exactly the most impressive of wins. While the Gophers came out on top, they played over 10 minutes of the second half against three players. In short, the entire Crimson Tide bench was tossed after a scuffle, another player fouled out, while another was lost to injury, leaving Alabama with three players on the court for a majority of the half. Yet, the Tide still outscored the Gophers 30-22 with two fewer players in a losing 89-84 effort.
Ultimately, the NCAA tournament committee could take into account how poorly the Gophers played with a two-man advantage against Alabama. In other words, there’s a chance the committee doesn’t look too favorably on the win considering the events at the end of the game. Unfortunate, considering Minnesota played extremely well until the chaos commenced. That being said, a huge win over the tenth-ranked Hurricanes should be enough for the committee to forget about a flukey end to an otherwise great showing from the Gophers against Alabama.
As for the Hurricanes (5-0), they are led by sophomores Dewan Huell and Bruce Brown Jr. Huell, a 6’11” sophomore, is becoming a force in the frontcourt after struggling as a freshman. Currently, he has a team-high 13.4 points per game along with 7.2 rebounds. Based on early results, he’s well on his way to becoming the double-double machine many projected him to be in college.
Even so, Brown Jr. is the player to watch as he projects as a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. In addition, he boasts the most complete game on the team. Specifically, the guard averages 9.8 points, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals and a team-high 8.6 rebounds. The only flaw in his game is that he struggles with 3-point shooting, which is an Achilles heel for the entire team. As matter of fact, Miami ranks 198th in the country in 3-point percentage.
Nevertheless, the Hurricanes have a deep roster with eight players averaging over seven points per game. Not to mention, they are third in scoring defense allowing 54 points per game. In turn, they are ranked as the third best team in the ACC and look destined for their third straight NCAA tournament appearance at regular season’s end.
Compared to the Hurricanes’ opponents thus far, the Gophers are a much better team by a wide margin. Through seven games, Minnesota has not just taken out every opponent, they’ve done it by destroying them in the paint with Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch.
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Combined, the two big men average 33.3 points and 20.6 rebounds, while Murphy leads the team with 22 points and 12.3 rebounds per game. In result, Murphy has been named Big Ten Player of the Week in three straight weeks to start the year. According to the Big Ten, that’s the first three-peat Player of the Week honoree since Evan Turner did it with Ohio State in 2009. Defensively, Lynch is the superior man in the paint averaging an NCAA-best 4.4 blocks a game.
Along with strong performances from guards Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington, the Gophers average 90.7 points per game and allow 69.7 points per game, a 21-point differential. As a result, they have an undefeated record and look more and more like a serious contender to win the Big Ten. Furthermore, they look like a team that can compete against anyone.
Against Miami, look for the Gophers to continue making their big men a focal point down low. Outside of Huell, the Hurricanes don’t have the post players to match up with the Gophers, so expect plenty more of Murphy and Lynch in this one. Additionally, Minnesota will have to rely on their guards to keep senior Ja’Quon Newton (11.6 ppg), freshman stud Lonnie Walker IV (7.0 ppg) and Bruce Brown Jr. in check. Particularly, they’d be smart to force them to settle for long jump shots, something they’ve largely struggled with this season.
All things considered, the Miami-Minnesota showdown looks to be quite the game, arguably the best one in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. It’s most definitely the Gophers’ top challenge so far and a win could be a real difference maker down the road. With Minnesota having the homecourt advantage, I have the Gophers pulling out a close, highly contested battle over Miami.