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Big Ten tournament preview: Can the Gophers make a run?

Minnesota has struggled to close out games. Will that change in the conference tourney?

Tomorrow evening the Gophers kick off the next and potentially final stage of their season, playing Northwestern in the first game of the Big Ten tournament. Minnesota enters the tournament as the 12 seed with a conference record of 8-12, having lost six of eight to end the regular season and three of their final four games by one, two, and five points, respectively.

Even so, coach Richard Pitino was optimistic in a pre-tournament conference call with reporters Monday morning.

“We’re close in so many ways,” said Pitino. “I really like our team.”

He went on to speak about the strength of the Big Ten, which saw eight teams ranked in the nation’s top 25 last week, mentioning that he recently looked at ESPN’s strength-of-schedule rankings and saw his program ranked first, with 12 of the conference’s 14 teams inside the metric’s top-15.

“Eight wins could have been ten in another year,” he said of the Big Ten's strength. 

Such a mentality isn’t without merit. Minnesota currently sits at 29th in both Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and Bart Tovik’s T-Rank system, suggesting they’re a much better team than their record shows.

As it is, the Gophers head to Indianapolis needing to do quite a bit of damage if they want to extend their season. They’ll likely need to win the tournament to get into the NCAA tournament, and likely need to finish with a .500 record to get into the NIT.

Last year they made a mini run, winning two games to secure a spot in the big dance. Here are three things to watch for if the U is to do the same this year:

Three-point shooting. It’s something much better analyzed in accordance with ball movement, guard production, defensive schemes, or a hundred other things, but the simple truth is this: when the Gophers make shots – specifically threes – they’re a tough team to beat, and when they don’t, they’re not. Take a look at their results from February and March:

  • 3/8 vs Nebraska, 105-75 win: 18/35 from three
  • 3/4 vs Indiana, 72-67 loss: 7/16 from three
  • 3/1 vs Wisconsin, 71-69 loss: 4/19 from three
  • 2/26 vs Maryland, 74-73 loss: 10/24 from three
  • 2/23 vs Northwestern, 83-47 win: 14/30 from three
  • 2/19 vs Indiana, 68-56 loss: 4/25 from three
  • 2/16 vs Iowa, 58-55 loss, 7/25 from three
  • 2/8 vs Penn State, 83-77 loss, 8/24 from three
  • 2/5 vs Wisconsin, 70-52 win, 9/22 from three

Notice a pattern?

On the plus-side, Minnesota shot just 32% in conference play from beyond the arc, meaning they’ve been better of late. Point guard Marcus Carr is 9-19 over his last five games, while two-guard Payton Willis is 10-25 over the same stretch. But most important is Gabe Kalscheur, who was 16-35 to end the year and tied a program record by going 8-11 on Sunday. The Gophers are 10-6 this season when he scores in double figures, and 9-4 when he makes three or more threes.

Those recent numbers were surely boosted by games against cellar-dwellers Northwestern and Nebraska, but confidence is fluid, and if those three guys are hitting from distance Minnesota’s ceiling is raised significantly.

For what it’s worth, their opening opponent, Northwestern, finished last in the conference in three-point defense. Illinois, their potential quarterfinal opponent, is second-to-last. Iowa, awaiting the winner of the opening game, was fifth, though roughly equidistant from finishing in last as they were in the top-three.

Daniel Oturu. The Gophers’ big man was phenomenal this year, finishing second in the Big Ten in scoring at 20 points per game and leading the conference with 11.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, and a 56.2% field goal percentage.

In tournament settings, with quick turnarounds, limited time to properly game plan for opponents, and fatigue creeping in, the best players tend to take over. That’s good news for the Gophers, because when Oturu is rolling the team is significantly better. He not only has the ability to completely dominate games, going off for 32 points and 16 rebounds against Penn State and 30 on 13-18 shooting versus Michigan, but his presence in the post forces defenses to collapse and opens up spacing for the shooters on the outside. 

Nebraska triple-teamed him on Sunday, and it’s probably not a coincidence the guards spent most of the game getting open looks from three. While that strategy likely won’t be heavily deployed in the Big Ten tournament, Oturu will be the focal point of opposing defensive schemes, and his ability to both finish and create will play a large part in his team’s success.

Of note, when the All-Big Ten First Team was announced Monday afternoon, Oturu wasn’t on it, being named to the second team instead. Arbitrary as it might be, it certainly seems like something that could motivate a player.

Fatigue. It’s no secret that Minnesota’s starters play a lot. Carr easily leads the conference in minutes at 37 per night, Oturu is fourth at 34.1, and Kalscheur is seventh with 33.2. No other school has more than one player in the top ten. Payton Willis checks in at 30.3 for good measure.

Carr especially has looked tired at the end of games – and for good reason! – and it’s tough to imagine fatigue not being a factor in the tournament, for the Gophers or anyone else. How many days in a row can guys be reasonably expected to perform well playing heavy minutes?

Alihan Demir had his most productive game as a Gopher on Sunday, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds, while freshman Isaiah Ihnen has logged at least 15 minutes over his previous six games and averaged 7+ points after seeing more than five minutes of action just once between Thanksgiving and the last 48 hours of January. Freshman Tre’ Williams, meanwhile, has been firmly in the rotation all season and has flashed potential to both knock down threes and finish at the rim.

Whether it’s one of these three or all of them, someone will have to step up at some point if the Gophers are to advance through the nation’s deepest conference.

To that point, their bracket draw isn’t the worst in the world. The opening game comes against Northwestern, winners of two of three but a team that nonetheless finished 3-17 in the conference. 

A first-round win then brings Iowa, losers of three of four and who three weeks ago stormed back down eight with 5:25 left at Williams Arena, something the Gophers surely haven’t forgotten about. The winner of that game gets Illinois, the only  double-bye holder that didn’t win a share of the conference championship. 

Michigan State, the only team that has truly given the U fits this season, is on the other side of the bracket.

“One game at a time,” is how Kalscheur described the team’s preparation. Minnesota tips off against the Wildcats at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

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