Gophers vs. Northwestern: 5 things to watch for

Jace Frederick

This one looked like a gimme on the schedule for the Gophers early in the Big Ten season.

Northwestern was 7-9 after losing its first three conference tilts. But things have changed. The Wildcats (11-11, 4-5) have now won three straight Big Ten battles, most recently a 65-56 win over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Wednesday. 

This game has morphed into a game the Gophers (15-6, 4-4) must have, not only for their tournament resume (every game is fits that qualification for one reason or another), but to maintain their position in the top third of the conference, ahead of this apparently fiesty group of Wildcats.

Here are my 5 things to watch for:

Northwestern's Defense (The Good): Statistically speaking, the Wildcats are really, really good on the defensive end. I'm not big into team points per game stats, because that can be so tempo dependant (and Northwestern sits 333rd in the nation in tempo out of 351 teams, according to KenPom.com). 

So here's a look at where the Cats sit in many of KenPom's defensive stats (national rank in parenthesis):

    Adj. Efficiency               Effective FG%               3P%              2P%              TO%

      91.8 (10th)                  44.4 (26th)             29.9 (21st)    44.2 (51st)     16.2 (301st)

Notice the anomaly at the end: steal percentage. Northwestern doesn't force turnovers. It's with a low-risk, stiff man-to-man approach that they force opponents into tough shots, and a lot of misses.

"They're a really good defensive team, as they've shown," Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. "They don't do anything that's a whole lot different than other opponents really. They just are really, really committed to it. They've got a great understanding of what they need to do to win, and they're showing great humility throughout it."

Northwestern's Offense (The Bad): As good as the Wildcats defense is, their offense has been just as bad. Quite the opposite, actually. Take a look:

     Adj. Efficiency              Effective FG%               3P%              2P%              TO%

       95.4 (316th)               45.8 (307th)          29.9 (317th)  46.4 (260th)  17.4 (99th)

Really, the offensive and defensive numbers almost mirror each other. Which might explain the .500 record..

Malik Smith: After his 29 points explosion that included a school-record tying eight triples on Sunday against Nebraska, how could you take your eyes off of this guy? 

Yes, Smith shined in his first Gophers start, but the senior guard has delivered all season.

Smith sports the Gophers highest offensive rating at 124.4 — good enough for 81st best of all players in the country, according to KenPom.com. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Smith has taken the most three-point attempts. What should be surprising is that he's hitting at better than a 42 percent click (47-111).

Block Party?: If Elliott Eliason was going to hold a block party, the weather would appear perfect to do so today. Northwestern gets 14 percent of its shots blocked (11th most in the country), while the Gophers block 13.6 percent of opponent's shots. Most of that work is done by Eliason, who blocks 11.7 percent of shots while he's on the floor — good for 17th best in all of the land. This matchup seems prime for Eliason to push for double-digit swats.

Foul game: Pitino said his squad has been fouling too much of late, and that's a problem. So this week, the Gophers coaching staff has aimed to fix it. They've done so by calling things a lot tighter in practice. How tight?

"Man, you can't even put a hand on somebody or they're going to call a foul," Smith said. "It's pretty frustrating, but it's going to prepare us for [the Northwestern] game."

We'll see if the practice pays off today as the Gophers will likley have to defend the methodical Wildcat offense for nearly 35 seconds each time down the court.