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March Madness 2017: Previewing Minnesota vs Middle Tennessee

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Minnesota is ready for the Madness!

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Tournament- Marshall vs MIddle Tennessee State Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

By now you’re probably familiar with the national narrative that the Gophers have drawn the worst 5/12 matchup in the NCAA Tournament and will almost certainly lose their first round matchup with the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. After all, we’re overseeded, are comparatively inexperienced, and have no history of winning in the Tournament.

Nevermind that the Gophers have played one of the harder schedules in the nation, hail from a premier conference and have faced some of the nation’s best teams night in and night out for the past two months. Oh, and they happened to go 11-7 in the conference along the way.

Up next is a Middle Tennessee team that upset Michigan State as a 15-seed last year and brought back several key contributors from that team of rabble rousers. They’ve gone 30-4 while brutalizing the Conference USA and have steadily climbed the KenPom rankings all year. They’re a dangerous-looking mid-major who is deserving of the pre-tournament praise that’s being heaped upon them as we roll into the first round.

But let’s not anoint them winners of the game quite yet. Consider that they’ve gotten fat on a supremely weak conference schedule and haven’t played a team in the top 100 of the RPI since December 14th. That’s not necessarily their fault, but Minnesota will be the best team they’ve faced all season, and running into a team that’s cut its teeth in the Big Ten and succeeded with stout defense is sure to be a wake up call.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

What time are they playing?

Approx. 3 p.m. CT (whenever the Butler/Winthrop is over)

Where are they playing?

Milwaukee

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, TNT.

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes. ESPN 1500.

Tell me more about the opponent.

MTSU is 30-4 on the season and has roared through the Conference USA, having gone 17-1 with a lone loss to UTEP. Everyone remembers their stunning upset of national contender Michigan State last year, but the Blue Raiders have doubled down on that success and find themselves as not only one of the winningest teams in the nation, but a member of the Coaches Poll, in at #25.

Have they astroturfed their schedule with an uninspiring conference slate? We’ll know in fairly short order, but they’re a veteran team who has won in the tournament before, which is more than the Gophers can say.

MTSU has a three-headed scoring monster in JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw. Williams, a transfer from Arkansas, is averaging a cool 17 ppg in his only season with MTSU. He scores a bunch inside the three-point line and regularly scores 20 or more points, and also pulls down about 7 rebounds per game. Potts is a junior guard who will light you up if you’re not careful, while Upshaw is just a big dude who can play all over the court and do a lot of things.

MTSU does not shoot the three that often, preferring to do its scoring inside. They also don’t really get to the free throw line that often. On defense, they run a lot of 1-3-1 traps (dear God), but tend to put teams on the line a ton.

Keys to the Game

The Raiders have done their damage inside and aren’t adept at playing the deep ball game, which is exactly what the Gophers prefer — a physical inside game. If the Gophers can force MTSU into the lane to go toe to toe with Lynch and Murphy they’ll have the Raiders right where they want them.

  1. For the love of God do not get into foul trouble

Now more than ever the Gophers need Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy to play intelligently aggressive. The dumb fouls have been cleaned up to a certain extent, but even against Michigan Murphy had to take an extended seat due to foul trouble. The Gophers will be in good shape if they can get full-ish games out of those two, and they’ll be instrumental in keeping the MTSU inside scoring threat at bay. Stop that threat and you probably win the game. Hit the bench with foul trouble? We’re in serious trouble.

2. Don’t get flustered by the trap

If there’s one thing I have nightmares about it’s a 1-3-1 press. It’s can wreak havoc on teams that aren’t prepared for it (see Smith, Tubby) and stop an offense in its tracks. On the other hand, it’s highly ineffective against teams that can pass well and easily break it. MTSU runs a lot of 1-3-1 traps, and if they start to find momentum with it and turn the Gophers over a ton, it could be lights out pretty early. Minnesota hasn’t been severely impacted by that type of press this season, but there have been times where it’s been thrown at them and they’ve gotten flustered. This cannot be one of those time.

Predictions

KenPom is basically saying this is a tossup, but is giving a slight edge to Minnesota, 67-65. Vegas is giving the edge to MTSU, for whatever that is worth. I think the Gophers match up well with the Blue Raiders, and I’ll take them by 4.