The Gophers are currently sitting in 90 degree weather and fitting in some practice between trips to the beach. They are actually getting ready for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. There are some interesting match-ups and opportunities for the Gophers to notch some quality wins and build their all-important Tournament Resume.
A few facts about the Tournament...
Time: 6:30 CST
TV: none for the Gopher's first game (internet streaming available on ESPN3.com)
Radio: Gopher games on WCCO of course
Location: San Juan, Puerto Rico at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico José Miguel Agrelot
Previous Winners: Villanova (09), Xavier (08), Miami (07)
The Teams on our half of the bracket
Western Kentucky - the Gopher's first round opponent. The Hilltoppers have six consecutive seasons of 20+ wins and have been known to knock off a BCS school from time to time. Most of us probably remember WKU as the Cinderella story of the 2008 NCAA Tournament when they advanced to the Sweet 16. Or maybe you remember them from 2009 when the knocked out Illinois before losing to Gonzaga by 2. The point is this team is used to playing with Big Ten or SEC or ACC teams and beating them. In the last three seasons they have defeated the likes of Georgia, Illinois, #3 Louisville, #24 Vanderbilt, Mississippi St, Michigan and Nebraska.
You may also know this team as the program where Clem Haskins played ball. Western Kentucky has a very long and distinguished basketball program ranking #14 on the all-time college basketball wins list (Minnesota is #47).
The current squad is coming off a year where they did not win their conference tournament and therefor did not make the NCAA Tournament. Gone is last year's leading scorer A.J. Slaugher (17.5) and Jeremy Evans (10.0). Returning are preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year, Sergio Kerusch and also making preseason first team all-conference Steffphon Pettigrew. These two are the keys to stopping the Hilltoppers, combined they are averaging 39.0 ppg. To finish off the Hilltopper frontline is Juan Pattillo who is averaging 19.0 points and 12 rebounds per game. These three forwards are athletic enough that they will create some match-up problems for our Gopher frontline.
As a team Western Kentucky is 2-0 defeating St. Joes and Alabama A&M. This will be a very similar test as the Wofford and Siena games were. WKU is a very good mid-major that will be right on edge of making the NCAA Tournament or not. A win here is potentially resume building.
North Carolina - IF the Gophers can pull out a win the Tar Heels are the likely opponent. UNC struggled last year and finished a VERY surprising 5-11 in the ACC and a mediocre 16-16 overall. Typically the Tar Heels have a top 5 recruiting class every single year so one would imagine a top 10 team every single year. But sometimes things don't always work out as planned in basketball. It just takes one guy to not get the system, another guy who doesn't quite fit in or another guy who doesn't improve as one might expect. The margin for error is razor thin, even for a program like UNC.
So what went wrong last year? Here is Blue Ribbon's explanation (the short version)...
Even with the return of seniors Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson, UNC's collective youth turned it into a rudderless ship that spent the most of the regular season circling in search of direction. Without a true point guard, the Tar Heels' trademark up-tempo style slowed to a screeching halt, exposing a glaring dearth of perimeter shooting threats.
Add to that an overly ambitious schedule, a rash of key injuries, bad breaks, bad attitudes and assorted other forms of adversity and the 2009-10 season quickly deteriorated into the worst and most frustrating of Williams' 22 years in coaching.
As the year went along they did get better and key players for this year's team improved. Larry Drew II is growing into a college point guard, John Henson and Tyler Zeller had a year to play together and form what might be a very formidable frontline for Williams. Then of course Roy added a great recruiting class highlighted by Harrison Barnes.
This would be the first Gopher opponent of the year that would present some actual size in the paint. Zeller is 7-0, Henson is 6-10 and Barnes is 6-8. This isn't a team that is going to slow things down and pound the ball inside, but defensively they will be long and active, making things difficult on Sampson, Mbakwe and Iverson. The real key will be tempo in this game. If UNC is able to get up and down the floor executing their full-court offense, we are going to be in some real trouble. The key for the Golden Gophers might be Absolute Zero slowing down Drew just enough for the Gopher defense to get set and not allow many easy baskets for the Tar Heels.
The Pride are picked to finish 5th in the Colonial and by that alone one can assume they are not going to beat North Carolina. Which means we will face Hofstra if we are unable to take care of business against Western Kentucky on Thursday. The Pride does however boast the reigning and preseason Colonial player of the year, Charles Jenkins. Can one refer to Jenkins as the pride of the Pride? (sorry for the lameness of that pun).
Jenkins averaged 20.6 ppg as a junior and is often referred to as a 'power guard' because of his ability to force his way into the lane and finish at the rim. If you want to stop Hofstra and come away with a win, Jenkins is the man you have to stop. Others to keep an eye on are Dwan McMillan and Greg Washington. McMillan signed with South Florida out of high school but opted for a JUCO instead and the sophomore point guard is now with Hofstra. Washington is a 6-10 big man who isn't really an insider banger. The senior averaged 6.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game as a junior.
The Rest of the Bracket - This will be a really quick look at the other four teams. I'll probably give more detail when we know the Gopher's opponent.
West Virginia - last year's final four team is not exactly the same with the loss of three starters, including De'Sean Butler. Returning is Kevin Jones who was second on the team in scoring and rebounding last year. Jones is a preseason all-Big East first teamer. The smart money is on the Mountaineers to be in the championship game on Sunday.
Vanderbilt - Here is a really nice paragraph on the 2010-11 Commodores...
After losing their two leading scorers from last season in Jermaine Beal and A.J. Ogilvy, this Commodore squad will rely on Jeff Taylor and John Jenkins for most of their production. Last week against Presbyterian, Brad Tinsley recorded the first triple-double in Vanderbilt history. This Commodore team has a lot of experience and certainly has the ability to win the SEC.
Vandy vs. West Virginia should be a good game and either would be a nice test for the Gophers, if we can just get by Western.
Nebraska - Seen to be a Big Ten doormat after years of being a Big 12 doormat. Was that a little harsh? Maybe but they are coming off a 2-14 Big 12 season and then graduated their leading scorer. The Cornhuskers are a deliberate, half-court team that does not score a whole lot of points. They are 2-0 on the season beating South Dakota and Arkansas Pine-Bluff. It could be worse, a certain Big Ten team I know couldn't handle South Dakota State at home, so maybe an 11th place finish will be in their Big Ten future.
Davidson - The Wildcats finished 3rd in the SoCon last year but were led by two freshmen, Jake Cohen and J.P. Kuhlman. This duo returns to lead an improving Davidson club. They did however open the season with a loss to Penn. And their opening round match-up with West Virginia is not a good one for them. This team may very easily be the consolation champs but hopefully we'll remain on the other side of the bracket and we won't see them.