Gophers at Purdue: 5 things to watch for

Jace Frederick

Read my story in today's Daily on the Gophers attempting to avoid another February slide.

Wednesday night marks an important point in the Gophers (15-7, 4-5) season as they travel to West Lafayette to take on Purdue (13-9, 3-6) at 7:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

Can Minnesota put an end to to its two-game losing streak and avoid further speculation that they're entering yet another February tailspin?

Here are my five things to watch for:

Elliott Eliason: Remember in my last five things where I hinted that Eliason would creep toward a double-digit block count against Northwestern, and then he went out and put up a donut in the swat category? Obviously, I was joking (but not really). This time, I'm serious.

Eliason posted eight points, seven boards and six blocks against Purdue at Williams Arena on Jan. 5. After that, he reeled off three-straight double-figure rebound performances.

But since then, something's changed.

In the Gophers last four games, Eliason hasn't recorded more than 21 minutes, his highest points count is seven (at Iowa) and his highest block count is two (twice). Obviously some of his lack of production has to do with the emergence of Mo Walker (11.5 ppg over the last four contests), but Eliason just hasn't had the same presence down low even when he is on the court.

But tonight, the Gophers will need their shot-defending monster back in prestine form against a Boilermakers squad that loves to get to the bucket at all costs. Purdue won't shy away from Eliason at the rim, so the Big Easy should have an opportunity to return to his normal ways of wreaking havoc on the defensive interior.

"I'm not worried about Elliott, I'm really not," Pitino said. "I think Mo is playing very, very well and I think Elliott can give us a lot, which he's given us all year."

Defending the Triple: The Gophers have struggled mightily when it comes to defending the three-ball in conference play. How mightily? They're last in the conference in the category, as they're allowing opponents to shoot 36.7 percent. 

Gophers head coach Richard Pitino cited opponents hitting tough shots as a reason for the poor statistics, but it's tough to accept that on a regular basis. Granted, Minnesota was solid in its victory over then-No. 9 Wisconsin, but the consistency on the defensive end has been lacking.

Wednesday night could provide a reprieve from Minnesota's struggles, as Purdue shoots under 33 percent from beyond the arc. And the Boilers don't prefer to shoot it from deep — though they did hit on 9 of 21 attempts in the early-January meeting. Purdue ranks 264th in the nation in percentage of total points coming off of the triple, with less than 23 percent of its points coming via the long ball.

The Start: Pitino has lauded the Gophers ability to get off to great starts throughout the season, and justifably so. Minnesota has used those starts to play with leads early in many games this season.

But in the past two losses, those great starts haven't been there. The Gophers allowed Nebraska to jump out to a 10-3 lead early in Lincoln and fell behind Northwestern 21-11 on Saturday before succumbing to defeat. 

If Minnesota falls behind early on the road on Wednesday, doubt may start to creep back into the Gophers heads, which could be dangerous.

Malik Smith: If he doesn't score, the Gophers offense likely won't succeed. With Andre Hollins out, that seems to be a simple fact for Minnesota. He's the primary offensive option right now — which is displayed by his 21 three-point attempts over the past two games. 

The difference between his Nebraska performance (29 points) and his Northwestern game (seven points), simply comes down to the shots not falling. 

It's tough to compete without a No. 1 scoring option. When he hits his shots, Smith can be just that for Minnesota — which he needs to do.

Tempo: The Gophers haven't been fast this season (235th in the nation in pace of play, according to KenPom.com).

But they'll likely have to run against Purdue tonight. The Boilermakers are 54th in the nation in tempo. 

Though the last time these two teams met, the pace wasn't exactly electric (63 possessions), Purdue is likely going to want to push it on its home floor, and the Gophers have shown a tendency to play at whatever speeds their opponent has wanted to play at. Minnesota has shown the ability to compete offensively at either speed, but its defensive deficiencies tend to be more prevelant in an up-tempo contest.

KenPom.com Game Prediction: Gophers 74, Purdue 72 (Minnesota has a 58 percent chance of victory)