Let’s reset. We’re 5-0 at the Thanksgiving break with four wins over some scrubby teams and an extremely solid, if not great, win over Providence on the road. The Gophers really couldn’t have had a better start to the season than this.
The non-conference schedule becomes precipitously more difficult in the coming week and a half, however, with two neutral court games as part of the Barclays Center* Classic and a premier ACC/B1G Challenge game against Miami. We’ll know a lot more about this team after Wednesday night.
First things first, though. There’s a matchup with the Massachusetts Minutemen in the first game of the first doubleheader of the Barclays Center Classic on Friday morning. I’ll spare you my rant in this preview, but if you want to hear about how stupid this holiday tournament is, please read it here. Long story short, half of the game aren’t even being played at the Barclays Center.
I joined a podcast (20-minute mark) with some UMass basketball dudes earlier this week and there was quite a bit of optimism about the program across the board. If you haven’t heard much from UMass since the Marcus Camby days, though, you’re not alone. They haven’t done a whole lot since the late 90s, save for a random tournament appearance in 2014. But with a new coach in tow there is some excitement bubbling in Amherst. The Minutemen are 3-1 this year with a loss to Harvard.
Who are the Gophers playing?
Massachusetts Minutemen (3-1, 0-0)
What time are they playing?
Friday, Nov. 24 at 11 a.m. CT
Where are they playing?
LIU-Brooklyn’s Steinberg Wellness Center (a.k.a. not the Barclays Center)
Can I watch the game on TV?
It’s not on TV. I mean, it kind of is, but you have to watch it on Facebook. All of the games will be available for free on Facebook Watch through the Live: Stadium College Basketball show page. So, get ready to watch on your device of choice.
Can I listen to the game on the radio?
Yes. 1130 AM and 103.5 FM.
Tell me more about the opponent.
If you’re like me, you have fond memories of a strong UMass basketball program that seemed to always been in contention in the late 90s. So, imagine my surprise when I looked at what the program has been up to lately and saw quite a bit of nothing since 1998. There have been a few NIT appearances and a nice run in 2014, but it’s been tough sledding in Amherst lately. The Minutemen have finished near the bottom of the conference the past few years and are picked to do so again this year. We’re far removed from their Final Four days.
There’s optimism, though. They’ve added a new coach in Matt McCall, who has injected some life into the program. Will that optimism translate into immediate on-court production? Hard to say. UMass doesn’t yet have the personnel to compete at a high level and lost last year’s leading scorer and several other via transfer. So, while it’s a fresh start, there’s a whole lot of immediate uncertainty.
This year, though, it’s been the Luwane Pipkins story. One of two returning starters, Pipkins is averaging a cool 22 points per game with 5.5 assists and five rebounds per game. He’s doing it all and is shooting almost 50 percent from deep. Against Niagara he was 7-10 from long range en route to 34 points on the night. Given Minnesota’s three-point defense woes, Pipkins is exactly the type of guy who can make life difficult and who the Gophers have had trouble defending this year.
The other returning starter is Rashaan Holloway, a 6-11, 300-lb center who was one of the team’s leading scorers last year. The problem? Holloway was a ridiculous 360 lbs. last year, and he physically couldn’t play much more than 20 minutes a game. For an impact starter that’s a big deal. He dropped 50 of those pounds in the offseason, but his playing time hasn’t increased in kind.
Keys to the Game
Real talk. The Gophers have been god awful at defending the three so far this year. In fact, they’re 339th nationally in three-point defense. Part of that is basically giving it away to some low-major teams that had zero chance of scoring inside and just daring them to only shoot threes, but at some point you gotta look at this and start to get worried. It has to balance out at some point, as the Gophers were 13th in the nation in three-point defense last year but right now it’s a major wart.
So, when you have a guy like Pipkins who can light it up it starts to get worrisome. UMass isn’t a team that will outwork Minnesota inside, but if Pipkins is scoring 30 points, that will certainly make an impact.
KenPom likes the Gophers in this one, predicting an 81-68 win. I’ll take the Gophers by 15. The Gophers will be the first team UMass plays inside the KenPom top-100, so I’m predicting a rude awakening.