What to watch for: Five keys to a Gophers win

Gophers face off against Washington at Tuesday’s NIT semifinal in New York City.

Charlie Armitz

1. Which Huskies team will show up?

After losing six of seven games to end the Big Ten season, the Gophers have won four of five and had their fans asking, “Where was this play earlier in the year?”

Huskies fans have been asking that question about their team all season long.

Led by potential top-20 NBA draft picks Terrence Ross (16.3 points per game) and Tony Wroten (16.2 ppg), Washington is among the most talented teams in the country.

Yet the Huskies have been blown off the floor on several occasions in 2011-12.

They won the regular season Pac-12 title despite two embarrassing losses at Colorado and Oregon and then fell in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament to Oregon State, which finished tied for eighth in the conference during the regular season.

They also lost at home to South Dakota State — a team the Gophers beat handily — by 19 points in mid-December.

A No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament, Washington defeated UT-Arlington, Northwestern and Oregon to reach the Final Four.

2. Pace: How fast can the Gophers go?

The Gophers like to play fast — that’s one reason they’ve succeeded in the NIT, where the Big Ten’s slow style of play has seldom been found.

Washington takes “playing fast” to a different level.

The Huskies average 75.9 points — nearly eight more than the Gophers — and take 61.4 shots per game, almost 10 more than the Gophers.

Washington scored 90 or more points five times this season, including last Tuesday’s 90-86 win against Oregon. The Gophers’ best offensive performance came Nov. 24 in an 86-85 win against DePaul.

Minnesota has looked comfortable playing at a fast pace all season, but it has yet to face a team that runs as much as Washington.

The Gophers have also struggled frequently with turnovers, which are more difficult to avoid in fast-paced games.

3. Battle in the paint

The Huskies’ strength is their guard play, and their weakness is inside play. Minnesota has won the inside battle more often than not this season, but it will likely play Tuesday without big men Ralph Sampson III and Oto Osenieks.

Sampson tweaked his knee before the Big Ten tournament in early March and hasn’t played since. Head coach Tubby Smith said Saturday that Sampson’s knee is getting better but that he still lacks explosiveness.

Osenieks injured his head in Minnesota’s 78-60 win against Miami on March 19. Smith said Saturday that Osenieks has experienced concussion symptoms and has not yet been cleared to practice.

Without Sampson and Osenieks, the Gophers would have to rely on center Elliott Eliason and forward Rodney Williams to carry the load inside.

Eliason has been ineffective in fast-paced games this season, while Williams has struggled to guard bigger players — like Washington’s Aziz N’Diaye and Darnell Gant — without getting into foul trouble.

4. Reserve play

With the emergence of Williams and freshman point guard Andre Hollins, Minnesota’s starting five has turned into a force on offense.

But the Gophers’ reserves have struggled more than ever lately in limited minutes. Their struggles have been amplified by the absences of Osenieks and Sampson.

Washington also lacks depth but has a stud sixth-man in guard C.J. Wilcox, who averages 14.3 points in 28.3 minutes.

Minnesota’s guard play has been a strength lately against average perimeter teams, but against the Huskies, the lack of athleticism in reserve guards Maverick Ahanmisi and Julian Welch could be exposed.

Guard Chip Armelin has thrived in fast-paced games but he has scored just 10 points in his last five contests after dropping a season-high 20 points against Nebraska on March 3.

5. Pressure-packed finish

Minnesota had a tough time closing games during conference play, but it has looked like a different team in pressure situations against nonconference foes.

The Gophers are 15-1 against nonconference opponents this season, and in nearly all of their victories, they have enjoyed comfortable leads down the stretch.

Minnesota’s only slip-up in nonconference play came in a Nov. 27 blowout loss to Dayton that coincided with Trevor Mbakwe’s season-ending ACL tear.

In the NIT, the Gophers pulled away late in the second half against La Salle and Middle Tennessee State and blew out Miami. They have yet to face significant pressure in the last two minutes of the game in the tournament.

If Tuesday’s contest lives up to its billing, Minnesota won’t have the luxury of a late-game lead. That will put the pressure on Hollins and Williams to make plays down the stretch — something they have struggled to do all season.