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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing St. John’s

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Gophers face their first major conference opponent

NCAA Basketball: Binghamton at St. John
The Red Storm is in town for the Gavitt Games.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota is 3-0 with convincing wins in all three games. They have a better record already than last year and the influx of talent that the team received this offseason is providing major gains on the court and a driving a budding sense of optimism that maybe a turnaround might actually be in the works.

But first things first.

The Gophers played two Sun Belt teams and one from the NEC in their first three games and may be in a for a rude awakening when they face St. John’s on Friday, who hails from the Big East. Not to discredit UT-Arlington — which was a very solid opponent and has a shot at making the NCAA Tournament — but many Gopher fans see tomorrow’s game as the first true test of the season for the young team.

A major subplot for this game is that it pits two teams with rich histories that have fallen on hard times and desperately want to move on. St. John’s finished dead last in the Big East last year and is picked to finish near the bottom again. But Minnesota is in the same position. And optimism abounds on both sides who think their team may be on to something.

Beating the Red Storm means establishing that a this team full of newcomers can overcome a major conference opponent. That’s a check mark for a squad whose ceiling could include a postseason appearance, but whose recent history includes a loss to South Dakota.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

St. John’s Red Storm

What time are they playing?

8 p.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Williams Arena

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes. BTN. Finally, real TV!

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes. 1500ESPN.

Tell me more about the opponent

The Gophers face St. John’s as part of the Gavitt Games, which is a new series pairing eight Big East teams with the eight from the Big Ten. The Red Storm enters this game 2-0 with dominant wins over Bethune-Cookman and Binghamton. However, with competition like that its tough to know what the Red Storm is capable of. Have they really just been beating up on lower-tier competition or are they capable of playing at a high level?

Chris Mullin is now in his second season and inherited a young team that desperately wants to show it has matured in year two. They had a rough, rough season last year but, like the Gophers, are hoping their underclassmen can play as veterans and are getting more comfortable in the system.

Playing to that narrative already is freshman PG Marcus LoVett who has scored 19 and 23 points in the first two games of his career. What’s more, he’s shooting 50% from long range and dumping off more than five assists a game. Having sat out last year due to academic issues, he was able to practice with the team, so he has a quasi-year in the program, and it’s showing. He’s dangerous.

Also watch out for Kassoum Yakwe, a 6-7 forward from Mali. He made the all-freshman team last year with his impressive blocking ability, swatting 66 shots to lead the league. He can be a nuisance on defense and had five blocks in the Red Storm’s last game.

Minnesota is superior to St. John’s on offense, according to KenPom, but the teams are fairly even on defense, with St. John’s nudging out the Gophers. So it’s up to the Red Storm defense to contain what appears to be a high-performing Gopher offense.

St. John’s is showing itself to be worse than even the Gophers at the free throw line, ranking 241st in the nation. Could the Gophers finally have an advantage at the line? They’ve done a great job so far at drawing fouls but converting has been difficult.

Keys to the Game

The Gophers have shown the ability to score a lot of points, but they’ve been a second half team, for better or for worse. When they’ve rolled they’ve looked unstoppable, but they’ve also been tangled up by some clearly inferior teams for minutes on end. St. John’s might have a defense that won’t let up.

  1. Keep Reggie Lynch on the floor - Lynch has been in foul trouble in each of the first three games and, while he’s being eased back from injury and limiting his minutes, hasn’t even given the coaching staff a choice. The Gophers need his size and aggressiveness down low to complement Jordan Murphy, but he’s racking up the fouls as quick as he’s racking up buckets.
  2. Stop the three pointer - St. John’s greatest strength may be the three-pointer, while the Gophers have had terrible trouble defending it. They were undone in the first half against UT-Arlington, who was raining threes on them before they abruptly went cold. If St. John’s is cooking from long range it could be a long night.
  3. Use the home court advantage - both teams are young and relatively inexperienced. But the Gophers have the advantage of playing in front of their home fans, thus mitigating an important variable. Harnessing the crowd’s energy will be a key intangible in beating the Red Storm.

Predictions

  • KenPom has this game at 79-71 Minnesota. I believe in the Gophers but think they win an ugly struggle 62-61.