Big men will dictate cagers’ fortunes on the road

by Anthony Maggio

Minnesota’s men’s basketball team has won on the road once.

But with five of their final nine games on the road, the Gophers need to improve drastically on their 1-4 mark away from Williams Arena if they want any chance to win the Big Ten – starting Wednesday at Ohio State.

“We’ve got a chance to really make moves up in the conference,” guard Kevin Burleson said. “This is a great opportunity to position ourselves well.”

In the midst of a three-game winning streak, Minnesota (12-6, 4-3 Big Ten) is tied for fifth in the conference with Indiana, but is only two games behind Big Ten leading Purdue.

Meanwhile, Ohio State (10-9, 3-5) is ninth in the conference.

But the Buckeyes aren’t to be taken lightly. Five of their losses were to top-20 teams. Three of those were to squads ranked in the top six nationally.

“They are very good defensively and take away your offensive strengths,” coach Dan Monson said. “We can’t go in there with the mindset that we’re going to outscore them. We’re going to have to make some tough plays and defend because they don’t give up 80 points a game. That’s not their nature.”

The Buckeyes are giving up only 64 points per game in Big Ten play this season, third in the conference.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s offense averages 71 points per conference game, enough to rank second in the Big Ten.

And after the Gophers inside scoring display against Michigan on Saturday, Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien said defending Monson’s squad won’t be easy.

“With a team like Minnesota you pick your poison,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think you can take any one aspect away and think you’ll be out of the woods.”

Against the Wolverines, the Gophers scored 53 points from their frontcourt. But O’Brien also knows the Gophers are shooting 34-percent from beyond the arc, good for third in the conference, and are tops in the conference in three-pointers made.

Defensively, the Gophers’ most pressing issue will be stopping Brent Darby. The senior guard is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and also among the top 10 in assists, steals, free throw percentage, three-pointers made and assist-to-turnover ratio.

But the biggest x-factor in Wednesday’s contest is center Velimir Radinovic, who has scored in double figures in each of the Buckeyes’ last four games.

The 7-foot junior is Ohio State’s biggest post presence, and will carry the burden of leading the charge defensively against Minnesota’s frontcourt.

The only concern for the Buckeyes is Radinovic’s tendency for foul trouble.

“The problem we have, especially comparing to Minnesota, is when Velimir goes out of the game – we become 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 around the basket,” O’Brien said. “He’s the one player we have that gives us size in the lane.”

Therefore, the Gophers must attack the paint as they did against Michigan in an attempt to increase Radinovic’s minutes on the bench. The Gophers scored 30 points inside against the Wolverines.

“We want to put foul pressure on their big guys,” Burleson said. “When we play against big guys that are good, our big guys step up. Our offense is going inside and coming out. We have to stick to the game plan.”

Anthony Maggio covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]