1. Minnesota has now won 5 of its last 7 games after an 0-5 start to conference play, whereas Indiana has lost 4 of its last 6 after a 5-1 start. Is this Minnesota team finally starting to hit its stride, and what has prompted the turnaround?
There are a few things that have contributed to he improved record. Andre Hollins is clearly our best player and he struggled to begin the Big Ten season. The senior averaged 9 ppg in the first five contests (all losses) and has been averaging 21 since (5-2 record). That has certainly helped this team on the offensive end, particularly because we do not have a reliable second scoring option.
Secondly they are playing better team defense. The defensive efficiency numbers in the losses compared to the last seven games has been quite different.
But for my money the biggest turnaround has been our opponents and being at home more than on the road. The Gophers opened up with 3 out of our first 4 B1G games on the road and facing Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan. And over the last 5-2 stretch four of those games were home (all wins) facing the likes of Nebraska, Rutgers, and Purdue. The Illinois home win was nice, as was beating Iowa on the road this week. But for the most part the schedule has just been a little kinder.
To their credit they are doing a better job of finishing off games and ending with a win. At Purdue to open the season they were up 11 with under 10 min to play. Missed free throws cost them a win over Ohio State and Iowa at home. Up nine with under 8 minutes at Michigan and they couldn't hold on. Now they are playing with more confidence and finishing better.
2. Opposing big men have given us plenty of trouble this season, and the 6-10 Maurice Walker is taller than anyone on IU's roster. Could Walker excel in the paint against Indiana on Sunday?
Mo is a pretty good scorer in the post and could present a real problem for the Hoosiers. He, much like Hollins, has been playing better but is still rather inconsistent. He is capable of a 16-18 point game, particularly if he can stay out of foul trouble. He shouldn't keep anyone awake at night but if he has a big game that should do an awful lot for the Gopher's chances.
3. Minnesota has a veteran backcourt with seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu leading the way. Will Hollins and Mathieu be able to defend the one-two scoring punch of Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon, Jr.?
The short answer is, yes. These two are pretty good defenders. I am not claiming that they will shut down Ferrell and Blackmon, but they are pretty solid defensively. Mattheiu is incredibly quick and should make for a fun matchup with Ferrell. Andre Hollins was worked over pretty good for the first 20 minutes against the league's other super-frosh, DeAngelo Russell giving up 25 first-half points. But Russell had just 2 in the second half plus overtime. Both of the Gopher guards can defend and should be a key matchup.
Often, Minnesota has gone to a 2-3 zone but considering Indiana is a good shooting team from behind the arc, I do not anticipate we will see the zone very much.
4. How do Gophers fans feel about Richard Pitino in his second season at the helm? I know Minnesota opened the season against Louisville and IU played the Cards this year as well - do you see similarities or differences in how Richard's teams have played compared to his father's team?
I think that this season has been a disappointment to most Gopher fans and people are deciding for themselves what the reason is. Ultimately, Pitino is trying to play a style of basketball that still doesn't quite suit the roster. It is getting more athletic, but still not there. So I think he is trying to get to a defensive system that is similar to his father's, but it is still a work in progress. Offensively he takes after Billy Donovan more than the elder Pitino.
5. IU does not play in The Barn this season, but Minnesota's home court is on my short list of college basketball venues that I'd love to visit some day. What makes The Barn so unique and worth checking out?
I love the Barn more than any other venue I have been to. When the Gophers are competitive that place fills up and gets rocking. The win over #1 Indiana two years ago was a perfect illustration of how much of a factor that place can be on opposing teams. The raised floor is unique, the old architecture makes it an attractive venue and the 15,000 fans can really get the roof raised. There is nothing sterile about it, very cozy.
6. Football talk: Jerry Kill has taken Minnesota from an also-ran to a B1G West contender. With coaching changes at both Nebraska and Wisconsin, is next season the football team's best shot at breaking through and winning a division title?
Maybe, there will be further raised expectations again this year. The defense returns most of what was a very good unit, they really should be very good on that side of the ball especially the secondary. Offensively things get interesting. David Cobb comes off a season where he set the Gopher's single-season rushing record. Our passing game was nothing to be feared but our only receiving weapon has left early for the pros. And while I admire our quarterback's leadership and decision-making, he is not a very accomplished passer. So the offense will need to find a new back who can carry the load while the entire passing offense needs to take two steps forward. Should be an interesting season, and we do get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home this year (and Michigan).
7. Prediction time: Who wins in Assembly Hall Sunday night and by how much?
I'd be foolish to pick the Gophers on the road against a good Indiana team. Defending the three, getting a second scorer to compliment Hollins and forcing turnovers are going to be significant keys. The Gophers are playing with confidence and maybe they are catching IU at the right time, but I can't actually pick the Gophers with a straight face.
Thanks again to GopherNation for answering our questions! The Hoosiers and Golden Gophers tip off on Sunday night at 7:30pm from Assembly Hall, and that game can be seen on BTN.