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Can Minnesota’s Big Men Slow Down Middle Tennessee State?

Gophers’ big men have their work cut out for them defensively

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Minnesota Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota has been an early upset pick since the NCAA Tournament bracket was released on Sunday. The five-seeded Gophers (24-9) drew 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee State (30-4), a team that is fresh in everyone’s mind after the Blue Raiders upset second-seeded Michigan State in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

If the Gophers are going to advance, they’ll need to slow down a team that is averaging 75.0 points per game on 49.0 percent shooting. Michigan State was unable to stop Middle Tennessee State last year, allowing the Blue Raiders to score 90 points on 55.9 percent (33-for-59) shooting, including 57.9 percent (11-for-19) from behind the arc.

Middle Tennessee State is coming in hot, scoring 78.9 points per game during their 10-game winning streak, including 86.0 points per game over the last four games. The Blue Raiders are shooting 36.8 percent from the 3-point line this season, but a majority of their offense comes in the paint.

Three players carry much of the load offensively for Middle Tennessee State. Two of them, JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw, are 6-feet-8 and can attack the basket. Williams leads Middle Tennessee State with 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, shooting 54.1 percent from the field. Upshaw is adding 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 31.6 percent from behind the arc.

Slowing those two will be the task of Minnesota’s big men. And they are more than capable. Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch will likely get the assignment of covering Williams.

Lynch is averaging 8.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and a team-high 3.5 blocks per game. The 6-foot-10 junior is a major deterrent for opponents looking to get into the paint, and will be crucial in limiting the athletic Williams. Lynch has 111 of Minnesota’s 224 blocks this season, while the Blue Raiders had just 97 blocks on the season. Lynch’s presence inside allows him to cover up mistakes that the covers make defensively.

Jordan Murphy gives Minnesota a solid partner inside. The 6-foot-6 forward isn’t huge, but he has the athleticism and ability to play play inside or chase you around on the perimeter. Murphy is averaging 11.2 points, a team-high 8.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game on the season. His skill set should allow him to match up with either Williams or Upshaw on the defensive end.

Minnesota struggled defensively in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, giving up 53.7 percent (29-for-54) shooting against a hot Michigan team that went on to win the tournament. But the Gophers weren’t awful inside, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and outrebounding the Wolverines 38-24.

The Gophers will need to close out possessions with rebounds if they’re going to keep the Blue Raiders in check. If they do that and Lynch and Murphy can play their role, forcing Middle Tennessee State to beat them from the outside, the Gophers should be in decent shape on Thursday. Upsets typically happen when a team hits shots early and builds momentum, Lynch and the Gophers will look to snuff that out.