NCAA Tournament Preview: Minnesota vs. Xavier

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By Mike Gallagher

So begins the most exciting sports event of the year.

Yeah, there’s the Super Bowl, the MLB playoffs, the BCS, but none compares to an event like this.  There’s simply nothing else like it.

The closest thing there is to the NCAA tournament is the World Cup, which happens to be this summer, but it still can’t live up to the frantic chaos of the NCAA tournament.  The next closest is the Olympics, which matches the action but not the interest level.  I’ll take college basketball over cross-country skiing any day of the week.  With so much action and excitement in such a short period of time, this event is second to none.

That brings us to these teams, and let’s first look at Minnesota.

Without a doubt the Gophers are happy to be here.  They looked done on at least five different occasions this year, and were written off for the better part of the conference season.

Once they began the Big Ten tournament, they began to make their run.

Beating Penn State came easy, but the Gophers needed a victory over Michigan State to keep their tournament hopes alive.

An inspired performance capped off by a dominant overtime gave the Gophers that, and a semi-final match up against Purdue, which they surely needed to have a good chance of getting in the tournament.

Although Purdue and Ohio State, two of the four remaining teams in the Big Ten tournament at that point, were ranked sixth and fifth in the country respectively, they are nowhere near each other at this moment.  The Gophers helped show that in their semi-final game, as Purdue is not close to the team they were with Robbie Hummel.  The Gophers overwhelmed Purdue in a 27-point win, but that number was not indicative of the team the Gophers are, but more a reflection of Purdue.

That was proven in the Big Ten title game, where the Gophers laid an egg, getting crushed by a should-be-number-one-seed Ohio State club that finished the game on a 48-21 run.  It appeared that the Gophers played 23 minutes of good basketball before Evan Turner departed our world and entered his own, scoring 22 in the second half.  Ohio State is simply a better basketball team with the best player in college basketball.  They are the best team in the Big Ten and it is not close.  The Gophers simply aren’t a championship team, but they did enough to get into the tournament and make some noise in the NCAAs.

Xavier is a completely different story.  They had won eight in a row before losing in overtime to fellow A-10 NCAA tournament participant Richmond in the A-10 semifinals.

It had been clear for a while that the Musketeers were going to be in the tournament, especially after their winning streak to end the year.

Xavier has only lost to one non-tournament team this year, A-10 bubble team Dayton back in early February.

On the flip side, they’ve only beaten two tournament teams this year, SEC bubble team Florida the game after their loss to Dayton, and the team that ended their A-10 tournament Richmond.

Allow me to join the bandwagon that says the Atlantic 10 was ridiculously overrated this year and that Temple along with Xavier and Richmond are going nowhere in the tournament.  I can safely say I am extremely happy that URI, Saint Louis, and Dayton are subjected to the NIT.

That being said, Xavier has a lot of talent on this team and is a high flying, high scoring bunch led by sophomore guard Jordan Crawford, who averaged nearly 20 points a game this season.

Senior center Jason Love will present a challenge for the Gophers bigs Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson, who can sometimes get bullied by bulkier bigs.  The 6’9”, 265 pound Love qualifies in that category and his numbers prove how he can play, with 12 points and eight boards a game this season.

Minnesota’s conference season was highlighted by the progression of Ralph Sampson III and more recently, Colton Iverson.

Sampson has shown more muscle in the conference season, collecting 5+ rebounds in all but two conference games he participated in.  He has showed much better low post moves and has become a threat offensively, something people would’ve scoffed at earlier in the year.

Iverson’s contribution was nothing short of completely unexpected in the Big Ten tournament.  After only scoring in double figures once in the conference season, he went 18-24 from the field tallying ten or more points three times in the conference postseason.

Along with the twin towers inside, the other key for the Gophers in this game will be Devoe Joseph.  He has stepped in for Al Nolen since his suspension and played very well offensively, especially lately.

Joseph scored in double figures in all of the Big Ten tournament games, and six of the last seven.  He has settled into the starting role well and it seems he is even more important than Lawrence Westbrook when it comes to getting the Gophers a win.

As far as this game goes, the key will be tempo.  The Gophers have become more of a half court team since Devoe Joseph took over at point guard.  When Al Nolen was captaining the Gopher offense, Minnesota was more of a pressing, fast break squad that struggled in the half court.  Now, with more of an offensive presence in Devoe Joseph on the floor, it gives defenses one more guy to worry about and it’s freed up the inside men.  If Xavier controls tempo and gets out on the run where Jordan Crawford and point guard Terrell Halloway can do damage, the Gophers will be in trouble.

The other match up to watch for is Sampson and Iverson versus Love as I mentioned earlier. If the Gophers bigs get muscled inside, that will force them to double down and Crawford will be able to create up top and off the dribble.

With the way the Gophers have been playing, Big Ten title game aside, you have to love their chances.  But Xavier was on a very good run before their overtime loss to Richmond, so both teams have a lot of momentum headed into the tournament.

The thing you worry about with Xavier is their lack of success against top teams this year, and we will see how they react to a power conference team in a big situation.  They did already beat Florida, which is the game that looks most like this one on Xavier’s schedule.

It will be a very interesting contest, one that will be fun to watch from both sides with the winner most likely getting Pittsburgh after they defeat Oakland.

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Comments

  1. i have to agree, the tourney is very exciting, worth taking the time off work to follow the first round… my best picks usually come in the first round, ’cause i’m a big fan of the underdog… i’m rooting for the gophs, of course, but feel they are lucky to be in at all, so there’s not a lot of hope here…

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