5 things to watch: Gophers at Wake Forest

Jack Satzinger

Minnesota will play at Wake Forest on Tuesday night at 6 p.m. as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The game can be seen on ESPNU and heard on 1500 ESPN. Here are five things to watch during the contest:

1. The backup small forward spot.

With Daquein McNeil's indefinite suspension from the team, Minnesota is very thin at the three position. Carlos Morris is the only true small forward still on the roster, which means his backup will be filled by committee. Look for Charles Buggs to play meaningful minutes here. Combo guards Nate Mason and Andre Hollins will also spend some time at small forward, but their lack of height is a big defensive liability. You can read more about that here

2. Can the Gophers big men improve their rebounding?

A few weeks ago I wrote about Mo Walker, Elliot Eliason and Joey King's collective inability to rebound the basketball. As a team, Minnesota isn't terrible at cleaning the glass — they rank 69th in the nation. But there's still much improvement needed from the big men. Walker is the Gophers' leading rebounder at just 4.8 boards per game. Eliason is second at 4.5 per contest and King is being outrebounded by 6-1 reserve guard Mason. 

Wake Forest will provide a stiff test for Minnesota when it comes to rebounding. The Demon Deacons are tied for 10th nationally in the category, behind Devin Thomas' 10.3 rebounds per game. 

3. Minnesota can help its NCAA Tournament chances tonight.

I know, I know. It's just the second day of December, but it's never too early to start thinking about the tourney. Minnesota lost out on a big nonconference win last week when it blew a first half lead against St. John's. The victory against Georgia looks good and so does the blowout win over Western Kentucky, but Tuesday's tilt at Wake Forest is essentially the Gophers' last chance to impress the selection committee before Big Ten play starts later this month. 

The rest of Minnesota's nonconference slate consists of Western Carolina, North Dakota, Southern, Seattle University, Furman and UNC-Wilmington. 

4. Will the Gophers put together a decent second half? 

Unfortunately for Minnesota, that poor second half against St. John's wasn't an abberation. In fact, it's been a trend. The Gophers led Georgia by double-digits at halftime last week and nearly lost before eking out a 66-62 victory. 

It's tough to pinpoint exactly why Minnesota is struggling in the second half. Richard Pitino said yesterday part of the problem is the Gophers' inability to fight through adversity. The loss of McNeil might also have an impact. He was a substantial piece of the rotation and now Minnesota is forced to play guys out of position and give more minutes to inexperienced players like Buggs. 

And now for some good news…

5. Minnesota is turning into an elite defensive team up top — but it's early. 

The Gophers are averaging exactly 11 steals per game, good for seventh in the nation. They finished last season ranked 45th. When I asked Pitino about the improved mark last week, he shrugged it off since Minnesota is still just six games into the season. 

"If we're fifth in February I'll be very excited," he said. 

While it is early, the Gophers have undeniably improved their ball pressure. Hollins is flying around more than ever before. Mason is a pest even though he's just a freshman. Carlos Morris has used his length to get active in the passing lanes.

After the season-opening loss to Louisville, Minnesota's coaching staff told DeAndre Mathieu he needs to play like a gnat and he seems to be buying in. After the Western Kentucky win, a game where he recorded 11 points, six assists, five rebounds and five steals, Mathieu said he was by far the most proud of his steal total because it showed he "was getting after it." Mathieu leads Minnesota with 2.7 steals per game. 

Prediction: Minnesota 71 Wake Forest 64 

The Demon Deacons are playing at home and are a great rebounding team. Minnesota is still struggling through depth issues after losing McNeil, which could be contributing to poor second halves. But the Gophers' defensive pressure has bothered teams this season and should be enough to help Minnesota boost its tournament resume ever so slightly with a win at Wake Forest tonight.