So, apparently the Gophers are a lock to win this game tonight; at least according to the national media and the greater pool of bracket pickers across the nation. I have this sneaking suspicion that I know better, however. The Gophers don't tend to do all that well when they're favored to win in important games, and being picked to win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, much less as a lower seed, seems like too much pressure for this already fragile team. In fact, I'd be more inclined to pick Minnesota to win if UCLA was instead favored. Unusual, I know, but that's how a warped Gophers mind tends to behave.
Admittedly, I go to bed before many of the Pac-12 games even start so my UCLA insight is limited. Cedric Bozeman still plays there, right? To fill the hole in my West Coast basketball expertise I connected with Greg at Bruins Nation to shed some light on who the Bruins are and what to expect tonight. His answers reinforce what everyone else is saying - that the Bruins are a great match-up for Minnesota and the team is reeling. Just what we want to hear. I guess we'll just have to see.
Also, check out some Minnesota-specific input that The Daily Gopher's GoAUpher and I provided for Bruins Nation prior to tonight's game.
1) It seems like every national expert is picking Minnesota as the upset pick over UCLA. Is this warranted? Why do you think they're such a trendy pick?
BN: I can understand the nation's lack of faith in the Bruins. They have been very up and very down all year, including some pretty inexplicable losses to teams like Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Washington State, and u$c. U.C.L.A. has very little strength or bulk inside. Travis and David Wear will get nearly all the minutes, but they are 4′s and can't match physically with a true center. The Bruins had a dominating junior center, Josh Smith, but he left the team about 10 games in to the season (he's transferring to Georgetown).
Their backup center is a highly recruited freshman named Tony Parker, but Ben Howland has essentially refused to play him all year and he has gotten about 2-3 minutes per game. Howland has promised he'll get 10+ minutes Friday, but now we have to wonder if Parker's ready for that. Also, the Bruins are very thin on the bench, having lost 2 players to transfer this season (Smith and guard Tyler Lamb) on top of early departures and transfers of 10 (yes, 10!) other players over the last 3-4 years. They will play only 7 players, and that is counting Parker's handful of minutes. They suffered a huge loss when star freshman guard, Jordan Adams, broke his foot defending the last play of the game in the Pac-12 Conference semis, and the Bruins really can't replace his points or defense. All in all, it is a thin team with no strong presence in the paint. They have good athleticism and skill elsewhere, but they are vulnerable if a team identifies and hammers their weaknesses.
2) Losing one of your leading scorers right before the tournament has to hurt. How does the loss of Jordan Adams impact the Bruins going forward?
BN: The loss of Adams hurts the Bruins in both depth and playmaking aspects. As I noted, the Bruins will go with 7 players, and if Parker really only gets his token 2-3 minutes at center, then it's really 6 players going the whole game. The Bruins did that against Oregon in the Pac-12 tourney tile game and you could clearly see the fatigue in the second half. Just as importantly, Adams was the team's second leading scorer, and probably the team's most diverse scorer. He was their best outside shooting threat, but could also slash and drive to the basket. More than any other player, Adams forced his defender to play honest. He will be replaced by Norman Powell, who is a spectacular athlete, but who just didn't get the playing time or the freedom to play like Adams this year, so it will be tough for him to make up for Adams' loss.
3) What's the feeling like in Los Angeles? Are people confident heading into the tournament?
BN: It's mixed. As far as the team goes, the Bruins have a great offensive player in Shabazz Muhammad. The twins, David and Travis Wear, are pretty solid power forwards on the offensive end. Kyle Anderson is a unique player who can play point on offense but is big enough that he mostly plays forward. Larry Drew II, the starting point guard, had a great assist to turnover ratio and has really upped his offensive game in the second half of the year.
Aside from the hole at center, the Bruins can put out a really good talented 5 or 6 on the offensive end. I think the offense has made Bruin fans confident that they can beat nearly anyone in the field, but it's that uncertainty and inconsistency that has given Bruin fans pause this year. Combine that with the weird dynamics around the team this year, the generally bad defense, the overall poor performance of the program over the last 4 seasons, and the fact that Howland will likely be fired if he doesn't get to the Sweet 16 or better this year, you get a restless and angst-filled fan base. Never mind that if we are fortunate enough to get past your team, then we have stupid Florida waiting in the next round - again.
4) Because UCLA plays on the West Coast a lot of us in Minnesota don't get to see them play. What are the Bruins' main strengths and weaknesses?
BN: The Bruins' main strength this season has been its offensive game. They are an athletic bunch that is at its best when upping the tempo and running. Muhammad, Travis Wear, Anderson, Drew, and Adams are all reliable and accomplished scorers. The offense slows down in the half court and is less effective and less disciplined. The main weakness for the Bruins are more on the defensive side and the bench. Howland plays almost exclusively man-to-man defense, but the Bruins are simply not a good man-on-man defending team and tend to give up a lot of easy baskets in the half court. This is particularly notable in the paint. Big men have really hurt the Bruins inside this year, and they aren't good at stopping slashers inside.
In addition, the Bruins are a terrible rebounding team, particularly on its defensive glass, so they give up a lot of second chance points. This is in stark contrast to Howland's traditional strengths and what got the Bruins to back-to-back to back Final Fours 5 years ago, and is a big reason he has fallen out of favor with many fans. Howland also has an uncanny ability to kill the Bruins' own momentum by taking puzzling timeouts after offensive baskets, and his rigid substitution pattern which failed to develop any depth on the bench which regularly plays both Wear twins at the same time, given they play the same position.
5) What do the Bruins need to do to win this game?
BN: The Bruins need to get this to be an up-tempo game where they can maximize their athleticism. Turning Minnesota over on defense will be key to both getting stops and transitioning to scoring chances. If the game slows down, then Drew II is going to have to shoot well from outside and the Wears need to take intelligent shots from the 15-18 foot range and in where they are quite good.
On defense, the Bruins will have to account for Minnesota's big men inside and limit entry passes and double down low, since our PF's will have a tough time going man against a true center. Following on this, Howland should play Parker extended minutes and Parker will have to respond. With the limited bench, the Bruins will absolutely have to stay out of foul trouble. Howland has traditionally been good at game planning for teams when he has several days to prepare so presumably he knows these issues. Executing them, especially on defense, will be the key.
6) Prediction time: how do you see this game playing out?
BN: Well, I never pick against my Bruins, and I never disrespect an opponent, so how's that for a cop out? I think that the Bruins will win if they can control tempo and create a wide open higher scoring game. If they can get some easy baskets and force Minnesota to run with them, the Bruins have the advantage. The Gophers can win if they slow things down, take care of the basketball, and keep pounding it inside. That will wear down the Bruins, especially if they can get them into foul trouble, and limit their opportunities in transition.
I think the determining factor will be on the boards, particularly the defensive glass for the Bruins. Minnesota already has that advantage on paper, so the Bruins will need to limit their losses there. If U.C.L.A. can hang close on the glass, especially if Minnesota isn't hitting a high percentage of shots, that keeps the Bruins in the game. Given the great success the Big Ten had this year and some of Minnesota's marquee wins, and given the Bruins' history in the past and their chaos right now, this should be a really fun and compelling match-up for college basketball fans. Besides, being the last game of the first/second round, everyone will be watching the finish.