Game Preview: Minnesota

WNUR’s Michael Stern (@MichaelJStern23) previews tonight’s hardwood matchup between Northwestern and Minnesota.

Northwestern faces Minnesota for the second time this season Sunday afternoon at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Both teams enter the game 5-7 in the Big Ten and are led by first-year head coaches. In the teams’ first meeting of the season, the Wildcats escaped “The Barn” with a 55-54 victory after Minnesota missed two well-defended layups in the closing seconds. The Gophers played that game without their leading scorer, Andre Hollins, but Hollins has recovered from his ankle injury and is expected to play Sunday.

I’ve already looked back on the end of the Tubby Smith era and the start of the Richard Pitino era in the Twin Cities before the teams’ first meeting, so I’ll give three keys to today’s game.

1. Minnesota’s three-point shooting: While some teams have only one or two three-point shooters that they lean on, Minnesota has spread the bulk of its three-point attempts between three players this season. Malik Smith, Andre Hollins, and Austin Hollins have each taken over 100 shots from downtown. Smith is the best long-range shooter out of the three, at 39.3 percent, while Andre Hollins shoots 36.9 percent from deep. Austin Hollins is markedly worse from downtown, shooting at only a 29.7 percent clip. Northwestern’s three-point defense has been on point this season, especially at Welsh-Ryan. Wildcat opponents shoot only 25.6 on three pointers in games played at Welsh-Ryan, the eighth-worst percentage in the country. Nebraska, however, used several clutch three-pointers to hold off Northwestern last weekend. The Wildcats will need to return to their stingy defense of the three-point line if they want to win Sunday afternoon.

Rich Pitino is in his first year as the head coach at Minnesota. Jana Freiband/ MinnPost

Rich Pitino is in his first year as the head coach at Minnesota. Jana Freiband/ MinnPost

2. Establishing Alex Olah: Olah has a tendency to disappear at times on the offensive end, but the Wildcats should make getting him the ball a priority Sunday for a couple of reasons. First off, giving Olah more touches will compress the defense and allow more open shot attempts for outside shooters Jershon Cobb and Tre Demps. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if Olah goes strong to the basket he could draw fouls on Minnesota’s bulky front line. Northwestern had trouble containing the Gopher big men in the teams’ first meeting, and one way to stop Minnesota bigs Elliot Eliason and Maurice Walker on the offensive end is to get them off the court by getting them in foul trouble. The easiest way to get them in foul trouble is to feed the ball into Olah and have him try to draw fouls.

3. Manage the glass: Controlling the glass might be too lofty of a goal for a Northwestern team whose rebound rate ranks 275th out of 351 NCAA division 1 teams, especially against a Minnesota team whose rebound rate is over 50 percent. However, any rebounds Northwestern can snag are an added plus for the Wildcats, because they allow Northwestern more time in their slow-it-down offensive style and they prevent multiple scoring opportunities for a talented Minnesota team. Preventing easy put-backs inside is especially important, as Walker feasted on tip-ins late in the first half of the teams’ first meeting.

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