The Gophers first Big Ten road test comes in a winnable matchup with 9-6 Penn State. A win would be huge for the Gophers, who will travel through a gauntlet after tonight's game. Minnesota's next four games are at Michigan State, home vs. Ohio State, at Iowa and home vs. Wisconsin. Head coach Richard Pitino said he doesn't really believe in must-win games this early in the season. If he did, tonight would be one of them.
Here are five things to watch for:
Backcourt matchups: Both these teams feature top guard talent. Gophers fans are very familiar with the Hollinses and DeAndre Mathieu, but Penn State has a duo that might be more explosive. D.J. Newbill is second in the conference in scoring (18.0 points per game) — Tim Frazier is seventh (16.9 ppg). Frazier also averages 6.7 assists per game. "He's one of the best guards in our conference," Pitino said of Frazier. "He's a really good player. It will be a really interesting matchup, just seeing how we figure out how to stop him."
Ross Travis: The Chaska, Minn. native has been a weapon in Penn State's frontcourt this season. The 6-feet-6-inch junior forward is averaging 10.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. But Travis has struggled early in Big Ten play. He turned in arguably his worst performance of the season in Penn State's 75-55 loss to Illinois on Saturday in which Travis scored 0 points and had just four rebounds in 31 minutes. He'll need to produce against Joey King and Oto Osenieks if Penn State is to compete with the Gophers.
Elliott Eliason — shot blocking without fouling: The Big Easy blocked six shots in 33 minutes against Purdue on Sunday while also contributing eight points and seven boards. Eliason has experienced foul trouble this season in big matchups against Syracuse and Michigan, and his absence certainly hurt the Gophers. Eliason playing 33 minutes against the Boilers, "Obviously I was tired. That's a lot of minutes. But I felt very good. I didn't feel winded at all." THat's good news for Minnesota, because it needs Eliason to get a lot of run to compete in conference play.
Creating defensive pressure: Purdue turned the ball over just eight times on Sunday — a low number against Minnesota's full-court pressure defense. Turning over experienced ball handlers like Frazier and Newbill may prove difficult as well, but the Gophers need to push opponent's turnover numbers into the double-digits at the very least, not only to fluster other teams, but to generate offensive opportunties for themselves, as well.
The Hollinses: Expect this one to be fairly common. When Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins combined for just 14 points against Michigan, the Gophers lost. When the duo put up 35 points against Purdue, Minnesota won. That's no coincidence. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins are Minnesota's clear-cut best two players, and they likely need to combine for somewhere in the 30-35 point range to give the Gophers a chance to win a lot of conference games. "I think that they know that they're going to have to be a significant part of our offense," Pitino said. "I think that they understand that part. I think at the Michigan game, both of them didn't shoot it very well and it was difficult for us to win. So I think they understand that they've got to take great shots. They've got to be great leaders. … People are going to gravitate towards them, and I think they like that role. They embrace that role. We're going to feed off those guys."