Gophers at Northwestern: 5 things to watch for

Jace Frederick

It's getting to the point of the season, when the calendar turns into late February and coaches, players and fans begin to taste that sometimes sweet, sometimes salty flavor of March. 

This is the time of year when it's fair to officially start labeling games "must-wins," at least in my book. So that's what we're going to call this one. 

The Gophers need to beat Northwestern on Sunday night.

The common opinion is that Minnesota needs to finish 8-10 in Big Ten play and secure one Big Ten Tournament win to seal up an NCAA Tournament bid.

Well, the most likely wins for the Gophers on the remaining schedule are Sunday night's contest at Northwestern, at home vs. Illinois on Wednesday and a home matchup with Penn State to wrap up the regular season on March 9th. While I'm not ruling out the Gophers winning at least one of their other three games (at Ohio State, home Iowa, at Michigan), they have shown the ability to win those types of games, they certainly wouldn't want to rely on winning one of those contests.

Also, beating Northwestern would help immensely for the Gophers Big Ten tournament seeding. The Gophers came into Sunday tied for seventh in the Big Ten in the conference standings. If they finished there, a first-round matchup would likely be with Purdue/Indiana/Northwestern/Nebraska — the Gophers are currently a combined 2-3 vs. those opponents. Minnesota probably wants to move up to that sixth spot for a likely date with Illinois or Penn State in the first round. To do that, it can't afford to not only lose another game to another mid-level Big Ten team, but it can't afford to fall to 0-2 to Northwestern, making it difficult to overcome the Wildcats because Northwestern would jump a game up on the Gophers and would own the tiebreaker.

Yeah, the Gophers need this one.

Here are my five things to watch for:

Andre Hollins: Hollins was great against the Badgers on Thursday, when he dropped 22 points. But Minnesota wasted his performance, as the Gophers dropped the game 78-70. That actually brings me to my point — Hollins can't do it all on his own.

Dre Hollins has topped the 20-point mark three times in conference play, and the Gophers are 0-3 in those games. Hollins has made a point to be aggressive this season, but he's far from selfish. He scores 20 when the Gophers need him to score 20 to compete. Minnesota can't need Hollins to have to score 20 to compete. While the Gophers are grateful to have Hollins back from his left ankle sprain and near 100 percent,  they have to have contributions across the board to have consistent success.

Interior Presence: In the three games prior to the Wisconsin game, the Gophers were averaging 38.7 points in the paint per game. In the loss to the Badgers, Minnesota only scored 20 of its 70 points in the key. 

Mo Walker, who'd turned into a dominant force of late down low, he didn't even take a shot until well into the second half. He finished with just five points and two boards. 

The Gophers started the season as an offense solely reliant on the perimeter game. They had recently become a team capable of going inside and out, making them incredibly difficult to guard. But the second the Badgers made it tough to throw the ball down low, Minnesota stopped doing it.

Look for the Gophers to make a concerted effort to get the ball into Eliason and Walker early and often on Sunday night to get the low post offense established.

The Battle Beyond the Arc: Statistically, the Gophers outplayed Northwestern in nearly every facet in their 55-54 loss to the Cats on Feb. 1. 

The one facet Minnesota lost in — the three-point game.

The Wildcats hit on 8 of 21 shots from deep, while the Gophers were just 3 for 14.

The thing is, if there is one area the Gophers should definitely be better than Northwestern in, it's beyond the arc. The Gophers are 118th in the country in three-point shooting. Northwestern is 312th. 

The Gophers have to hit some shots from deep to win on the road, and they have to pressure the Wildcats off of the three-point line.

Elliott Eliason: When the Gophers were really rolling earlier in the season, Elliott Eliason was the catalyst. 

But as of late, Eliason has struggled to get it going. Yes, some of that has to do with the recent emergence of Mo Walker as the Gophers primary interior scoring threat, but Eliason just hasn't been the same on the defensive end or on the glass.

Eliason started the Big Ten slate with double-figure rebounds in four of Minnesota's first five contests. He's had no such games in the past seven contests.

The Gophers need Eliason to anchor their interior defense and clean up the glass on both ends of the court. When he doesn't, they aren't the same team.

Defending Drew Crawford: Crawford is undoubtedly the Wildcats best player. He avearges 16.2 points and 6.7 boards in an absured 35.9 minutes per game.

And Crawford killed the Gophers on Feb. 1. He scored 17 points on 6 for 9 shooting in the Cats victory.

Not many players on Northwestern can beat you, but Crawford is one of them. The Gophers can't let him do it this time around. Prediction: Gophers 61, Northwestern 58 (Minnesota has a 60 percent chance of victory)

Also, check out my blog on DeAndre Mathieu and how important he is to the Gophers success: