The Big Ten season is only a couple of weeks old, but there is little doubt that tomorrow's Indiana-Minnesota game at Assembly Hall is the top matchup of the season so far in league play, certainly in the Big Ten and perhaps even nationally. While it generally was agreed that Indiana and Michigan would be at or near the top of the conference, Minnesota's emergence as, at this point, a clear top 3 team in the league is a bit of a surprise, although perhaps it shouldn't be. Trevor Mbakwe, who began his college career playing for Tom Crean at Marquette, has returned and is healthy and is a major part of a very intimidating front line for the Gophers. Minnesota stands at 15-1 and is 3-0 in the Big Ten. The Gophers' only loss was to #1 Duke in November, and in Big Ten play, the Gophers have arguably the league's best win (a 13-point home win over Michigan State, although Illinois might protest regarding its home win over Ohio State), and the best road win (a 17-point win at Illinois). Frankly, this game means much more to IU than it does to Minnesota. Even if the Gophers were going to go 16-2 or 15-3 in conference play, this game would be expected to be in the loss column. Dropping a home game, on the other hand, even to a quality team, would be quite damaging to IU's quest for a Big Ten title and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Coincidentally, tomorrow's game will be played on the one year anniversary of last year's IU-Minnesota game in Bloomington. The Gophers were 0-4 in the Big Ten that day and were without Mbakwe, but led nearly the entire way and withstood a late IU rally to hold on. That game was the beginning of the worst stretch of last season for IU, a three game losing streak that also included losses at Ohio State and Nebraska. That game remains IU's only home loss in the last two seasons (29 games).
As would be expected of a consensus top 10 team, the Gophers are doing lots of things well. Particularly impressive is that they lead the nation with an offensive rebound percentage of 48.5. That means that they get a second chance on about half of their missed shots. That is offset a little bit by a poor turnover percentage (21.8, 23.8 in Big Ten play), but offensive rebounding and a penchant for getting to the line (.46 free throw attempts per field goal attempt) are good enough to make Minnesota #10 in adjusted offensive efficiency despite unremarkable shooting percentages. On defense, the Gophers are playing excellent field goal defense, as they typically have done under Tubby Smith from two point range. Minnesota holds its opponents to 29.6 percent from deep and 41.8 percent from two point range. The typical profile for Tubby's teams has been good two point defense and poor three point defense. That the Gophers are doing well all over the court is a departure for them statistically. They also force quite a few turnovers (23.8 percent), but aren't particularly strong on the defensive boards, allowing opponents to board 34.8 percent of their own misses. IU hasn't been particularly good on the defensive boards so far in Big Ten play, so this is something to watch.
Like the Hoosiers, the Gophers have a balanced scoring attack, with five players averaging between 9.3 and 13.7 points per game. Andre Hollins is the Gophers' leading scorer, most formidable three point threat, and assist leader. Mbakwe is their leading rebounder. Mbakwe and Rodney Williams are the most formidable shot blockers for a team that ranks in the top ten nationally in that category. Elliott Eliason averages 1.3 blocks per game in only 14 minutes per game.
This is a tough game to picture. IU's numbers suggest that IU should be able to match Minnesota on the front line, but those numbers may be somewhat inflated by IU's competition. Unquestionably, Cody Zeller will have to play well, and Good Watford, along with quality bench minutes from Derek Elston and Hanner Mosquera-Perea would help as well. This is going to be a fun game. Both teams, as would be expected of top 10 teams, have multiple strengths. I don't know what to expect, but we should have a better handle on just how good this IU team is in about 26 hours.