Preview: Minnesota vs. Syracuse - Can Austin Hollins Solve The Zone?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden Gophers challenge the Orange in the first round of the Maui Invitational.

After beating the likes of Lehigh, Montana, and Coastal Carolina, Richard Pintino will get to test his resolve against one of his father's former nemesis in the form of Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange. While Minnesota has handled its pre-Maui slate with relative ease, they have yet to face a team with the amount of talent and depth that Syracuse can claim to own. This is not to say Minnesota has no chance in this game. It was only a week ago that the Orange were struggling to not only put away but defeat the Terriers of St. Francis at the Carrier Dome.

While Boeheim's team is loaded with talent and athleticism, it can go into deep shooting funks for prolonged periods of time. And though it's the beginning of the season and advanced statistics don't have a very large sample size to work with, the Gophers currently rank 17th in KenPom's rankings, whereas Syracuse is 27th. This is not the lopsided affair that many casual fans may be assuming.

A big key in the game will be Minnesota's ability to keep the rebounding margin respectable. While Eliott Eliason currently leads the B1G in rebounding at 11.2 rpg, Syracuse as a team holds one of the country's best rebounding margins at plus 13.8. The Gophers will need to keep the Orange off the offensive boards and keep the rebounding battle close in order to eliminate second-chance points for Syracuse big men and force the Orange to shot from outside the paint to score. If Minnesota can keep the easy buckets to a minimum, they may be able to extend the game.

It will be interesting to see how much the Gopher defense pressures freshman Tyler Ennis throughout the game. Ennis has struggled to shoot from the floor thus far this season but has only turned the ball over six times in four games. Not a bad ratio for a true freshman in his first four games of his career. Obviously, the main offensive threat for the Gophers to keep tabs on is senior forward C.J. Fair. While he was doomed by a horrendous shooting night against St. Francis last Monday (15.4% from the field), he has averaged 18.8 ppg. It will be a group effort to contain Fair and keep him from getting clean looks. Depending upon how well Syracuse's athletes react to the Gopher press, Pitino's crew may fall back into the 2-3 zone early in the game.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Gophers will have to rely on the outside shooting of Andre Hollins, Oto Osenieks, and Austin Hollins to carry the day. While Minnesota can't get comfortable jacking up threes early in the game, they will need to show Syracuse they can knock down the long ball in order to stretch the zone and open gaps for Eliason, Austin Hollins, and Osenieks to exploit on the inside. If Joey King does not go for the Gophers (he suffered a broken jaw less than a week ago so he is doubtful), there is literally zero front court depth for this game, with Mo Walker serviing the final leg of his six game suspension. Eliason will have to stay out of foul trouble and be ready to play at least 32 minutes for the Gophers to have any chance against a physical Syracuse team on the defensive side of the ball. Since the Gophers lack front court depth, foul trouble could doom them against an athletically superior team. But it is always possible that Andre Hollins goes on a scoring binge and the Minnesota defense does just enough to keep the rebounding margin reasonable.

Expect a lower scoing game in the high 60s or low 70s and for free throw percentages to make a big difference. While I have never been much of a socre prognosticator, I will say this much: whoever wins this game will more than likely play in the Maui Championship on Wednesday as I believe either of the teams can handle the winner of the Arkansas/California game which kicks off the Maui Invitational at 2:00 CST today.

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