After Penn State and Nebraska hopefully give us an exciting start to the Big Ten Basketball Tournament on Wednesday afternoon, Rutgers and Minnesota will take the floor in Chicago sometime around 6:00 p.m. CT (unless there's overtime!). While the Scarlet Knights will be looking to scrape together a third conference win after losing 14 contests in the a row, Minnesota wants to bounce back and make a run after blowing a chance to earn a first-round bye during its regular season finale.
Could the stakes be higher? Yes, but this one still has the potential to be exciting.
The Gophers were still looking for their first conference win when these two teams faced off in Minneapolis on January 17. The normally tepid Rutgers offense was kicked into high gear by an outstanding performance from Myles Mack, who scored 26 points with eight assists and six rebounds. Minnesota, however, hung on for the 89-80 win thanks to seven three-pointers from Andre Hollins. The senior ended up with a season-high 31 points to get the Gophers' season back on track.
The victory started a streak of five wins in seven games for Minnesota, but quality wins over Purdue, Iowa, and Michigan State have since been balanced out by home losses to Northwestern and Penn State. It's been a rough season for Richard Pitino and company, but the Gophers still have the talent necessary for one last run at Big Ten glory.
When Rutgers has the ball
That run may come up quite short if Minnesota fails to slow down Mack again. Rutgers' senior guard has been held to just 14 points total in his past two games, but that doesn't mean he can't erupt against a Gopher defense that ranks last in the Big Ten in three-point percentage against. The Knights themselves are dreadful at shooting, but they might struggle more in the turnovers department against Minnesota. That's an area where the Rutgers offense does not match up well at all against Minnesota's defense. The Gophers excel at taking the ball away from opponents, so Mack must focus on maintaining possession while referring often to Kadeem Jack, who just had one of his best games of the year (21 points) against Michigan.
When Minnesota has the ball
Compared to Rutgers' Mack and Jack show, the Gophers have a more balanced attack that features six players averaging at least eight points per game. Hollins leads the way with his three-point shooting, but his inside-the-arc game leaves something to be desired. Minnesota as a team struggles to draw fouls, with Maurice Walker being the only Gopher to attempt over 100 free throws this season. The Knights don't foul a whole lot, so look for Minnesota's guards to live and die with their jump shooting in this one. As for the big men, Walker is coming off of an incredible 26-point, 11-rebound outing against Penn State and he could be due for another double-double if emerging Rutgers center Greg Lewis isn't able to contain him.
Speaking of Lewis, he's scored in double figures during two of his last four games and could be an interesting third option for the Rutgers offense should they commit to getting the ball inside. Lewis is prone to foul trouble, though, and that's what limited him to just two points and 18 minutes last weekend against a small Michigan team that he should have been able to take advantage of. If Lewis can avoid fouling Walker on defense, he can be a difference-maker on the other end.
For Minnesota, Joey King is someone to keep an eye on. The lanky junior is tall enough to play power forward but attempts more than half of his shots from beyond the arc. Stretch fours like King are common in the NBA but are a luxury in the college game where teams sometimes have trouble generating space. With King looming in three-point land, more space will be made available for penetrating guards like Carlos Morris and DeAndre Mathieu.
Minnesota is favored by 10 points with KenPom predicting a 73-64 Gopher win. While Rutgers might have a hard time slowing down the Minnesota offense, Mack and company were able to score at will the last time around. Plus, Minnesota has only defeated one Big Ten opponent by more than 10 points this season. That was in a 60-42 win over Nebraska on January 31.