Preview: Iowa vs. Minnesota

Story by Miles Klotz

Minnesota guard Nate Mason tries to get past Arkansas defender Adrio Bailey in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Iowa City, Iowa – Iowa’s win over Wisconsin last Tuesday has not been the turnaround the Hawkeyes surely have been hoping for in the midst of a dreadful season. At least not yet. The Hawkeyes followed up that victory with a miserable defensive performance in a blowout road loss to Nebraska, but have a chance to right the ship against a reeling Minnesota team on Tuesday, at 8PM on the Big Ten Network.

Minnesota came into the season with sky-high expectations, and for a time, they were meeting them – the Gophers were ranked as high as 12th in the AP Poll before December, when everything fell apart. Blowout road losses to Nebraska and Arkansas seemed to crush team morale, and a sexual assault scandal emerged with star forward Reggie Lynch (who is still on the team) around the New Year. Minnesota has failed to mesh as a team since the calendar turned. They’ve lost 6 of their last 7 and would have to win out to match their conference record from last season. For a team that brought back experience and added a great recruiting class, this has been a disappointing year – arguably more disappointing than Iowa’s season.

So, what better way for both teams to jolt out of slumps than to play each other? Iowa probably has revenge on their mind after last year’s double overtime loss in Minneapolis that should never have went to overtime in the first place and likely cost the Hawkeyes an NCAA tournament trip. On the flipside, Iowa is very good against the Golden Gophers in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, having only lost once at home to Minnesota in the past five seasons.

Everything that could have gone wrong with Minnesota’s roster this year has gone wrong. Lynch was the best shot-blocker in college basketball over the last two years before he became shrouded in scandal, and Minnesota has not been able to find a reliable replacement in the middle. Eric Curry showed promise as a freshman, but tore his ACL in the offseason and hasn’t played at all this season. Talented freshman Isaiah Washington has been extremely ineffective when he’s gotten on the court, which hasn’t been much.

The main guy for the Gophers, in the midst of constant lineup turnover and rotation changes, has been junior forward Jordan Murphy. His production has slowed a bit since the start of the season, when he was ripping defenses apart and destroying everyone on the boards, but he still is putting up 17.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per contest and shooting 52.3%. You could make a case for Murphy as Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s been that good. Just as important has been ever-reliable senior guard Nate Mason, who’s finally close to graduating after shredding Big Ten defenses for years. He’s averaging a career high 15.8 points per game in his final go-around with Minnesota while shooting the three-pointer better than ever before and turning the ball over less than any other season. Amir Coffey missed a few games at the start of Big Ten play with injury but has returned quickly, and has been just as good as his breakout freshman season, posting 14.0 PPG and shooting 47.5% from the field. Dupree McBrayer is lengthy at 6-foot-5 and also scores in double figures nightly.

Minnesota’s big struggle this season has been defense, which is where they were so good last season – they rank 13th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten in KenPom’s adjusted defense number, behind only – you guessed it – Iowa. They almost never force turnovers, ranking 297th in defensive turnover rate. Their two-point defense is far better than their three-point defense, but a good bit of that number came with Reggie Lynch and his 4.1 blocks per game playing regularly. Iowa’s been shooting it better from behind the arc as of late (particularly Jordan Bohannon), so that is an area they could look to exploit. It will be a tall task to ask Tyler Cook to take on Murphy inside anyway. Offensively, the Gophers have been decent, just about on par with last season (77th in adjusted offense both years). They, like Iowa, like to run at a fast tempo, so expect lots of possessions and fast breaks off of turnovers.

Prediction: Iowa wins, 84-79. This is going to be a high-scoring, fast-paced game. Iowa’s at home, where they play very well against Minnesota, and they actually match up quite well with this team. It may seem crazy to pick them to win after Saturday’s stinker in Lincoln, but they’ve got the right opponent coming in at the right time.

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