Today begins a new season for the Gophers men’s basketball team, but it could be over as soon as it starts.
From this point on, Minnesota (17-10, 8-9 Big Ten) doesn’t need to worry about polls or power rankings. If the Gophers lose to Gonzaga (25-6) this afternoon in Seattle, they’ll only have to worry about next season.
“We’ve got to take it one game at a time,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “I don’t want to get caught up in scenarios, because I want my players focused on Gonzaga.”
The Bulldogs won both the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament titles for the first time in school history, leading the conference in scoring and shooting percentage.
Gonzaga may forever be known as the school that produced current NBA star John Stockton and Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad, but the current team has developed a connection of its own with the university and the town of Spokane, Wash.
“I think the community has really supported us unconditionally,” Bulldogs coach Dan Monson said. “We’ve got great enthusiasm from our fans, and the players really feed off of that.”
The Bulldogs have treated their fans to the 20th highest-scoring team in the country (79.1) and the eighth-best team in shooting percentage (.481). Their preferred method of scoring is from long-distance, where the team shot a collective 39 percent from behind the three-point arc.
Guards Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo are the Bulldogs’ main offensive threats, and their uncanny accuracy from beyond the arc reminds Haskins of another high-powered backcourt the Gophers faced this season.
“They’ve got three very good shooters,” Haskins said. “They’re kind of like (Michigan’s Louis) Bullock and (Robbie) Reid, and those guys had a lot of success against us when we faced them.”
The third shooter on the team is versatile forward Casey Calvary. The 6-foot-8 Calvary averaged 9.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while shooting 66 percent from the floor and 43 percent from beyond the arc. Calvary and 6-foot-11 center Jeremy Eaton provide a solid fore-court combination to the Bulldogs’ three-guard offense.
Despite Gonzaga’s emphasis on the perimeter game, Gophers guard Kevin Nathaniel believes it can be shut down.
“Actually their style of offense helps us defensively,” Nathaniel said. “It really allows us to test and pressure them more.”
Minnesota struggled this year against teams that shot well from beyond the arc because of its inability to find a consistent perimeter defense. In late-season losses to Michigan, Iowa, Michigan State and their conference tournament loss to Illinois, the Gophers allowed opponents to shoot an average of 35 percent from three-point range.
The thought of Frahm, Santangelo and Calvary repeating the three-point success of Michigan’s Bullock and Reid and Illinois’ Cory Bradford would not bode well for the Gophers. Minnesota’s efforts to counter Gonzaga from beyond the arc might be further hindered by guard Kevin Clark’s renewed seizure problem.
Clark suffered his latest seizure Tuesday en route to Seattle, and it remains uncertain how medication could effect him during the game. Clark’s last bout with seizures, prior to Minnesota’s Feb. 17 game at Penn State, limited him to just 13 minutes of action.
“I’m just looking forward to showing what I can do in the tournament,” Clark said. “This is my first NCAA tournament, but it’s also my last, and I’m going to do whatever I need to do to help our team win.”
While Clark’s 19-point effort last week against Illinois made up for forward Quincy Lewis’ atypical shooting struggles, another subpar output from Lewis would likely spell first-round doom for the Gophers. However, Lewis believes that Minnesota is primed for its best performance.
“I think we’re peaking right now, and it’s just at the right time,” he said. “I think we’ve gained the confidence to beat anyone we play in this tournament.”