Keys to victory

Five problems the Gophers will likely need to fix to upset the Wildcats on Thursday.

Charlie Armitz

1. Break the zone

One of Minnesota’s most costly flaws in 2011-12 has been its inability to counter zone defenses.

If past success is any indication, Northwestern will use its patented 1-3-1 trap zone defense throughout Thursday’s game.

The Wildcats had great success using the zone in their 64-53 win Feb. 18 against Minnesota, forcing 19 turnovers and turning many of them into easy fast break opportunities.

“It was really their 1-3-1 that messed us up,” said junior Rodney Williams, who had four turnovers in the loss, “and we didn’t finish around the basket well. Those are the two areas we really focused on this week.”

2. Defend the 3-pointer

The Wildcats live and die by the 3-point shot, and the Gophers have struggled to defend good 3-point shooting teams all season long.

Northwestern kept Minnesota’s defense off-balance throughout its Feb. 18 win, firing open 3-pointers at will and making 10 of 27 shots from long range.

The Wildcats struggle to score off the dribble, but leading scorer John Shurna’s playmaking ability has opened up driving lanes and open 3-point looks for his teammates all season.

3. Start strong, finish strong

Minnesota has been a team of runs this season, but those runs haven’t always come at the best times. Slow starts and poor finishes have put the Gophers in losing positions throughout the Big Ten season.

When Minnesota defeated Northwestern 75-52 on Jan. 22 at Williams Arena, it took an early 30-9 lead and closed the game on a 13-4 run.

But a month later, it fell behind 11-4 and failed to make a late push after cutting into the Wildcats’ lead on several occasions.

4. Follow the leader

If Ralph Sampson III’s knee injury sidelines him, Minnesota will have to play without a single senior in its rotation.

Even with Sampson, the team has lacked leadership since senior Trevor Mbakwe ended his season with an ACL tear. Williams, the team’s second-most experienced player, has played well without Sampson, but his leadership has been limited by inconsistency, and at times, a lack of focus.

Tubby Smith said Wednesday that point guard Andre Hollins’ leadership qualities have grown as the season has progressed. Hollins has finished close games better than junior point guard Julian Welch, but his inexperience has showed in his lack of discipline on defense and his inability to involve his teammates in the offense.

5. Manage the lineup

With Welch returning to the lineup and Sampson possibly sitting out, Smith may have to add two new players — Welch and backup center Elliott Eliason — to his starting lineup.

That would also force him to alter his second unit, which has played with energy but at times lacked chemistry. Many of the Gophers’ opponents’ runs in 2011-12 have come while Smith has played five reserves at once.

Sophomore Chip Armelin switched from the second unit to the first unit to start the second half in Sunday’s win against Nebraska and scored a season-high 20 points.

But Minnesota’s other shooting guard, freshman Joe Coleman, has played well against Northwestern this season, especially when faced with the 1-3-1 zone.


-Dane Mizutani contributed to this report.