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2017 NCAA Tournament Preview: #5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee State

The Gophers surprising turnaround has them back in the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Milwaukee Practice Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Things can change in a hurry in college basketball and the Golden Gophers are a perfect example of this. In the span of a year, Minnesota went from 8-23 to not only making the NCAA Tournament, but earning the second highest seed out of the Big Ten. Of course it should be mentioned last year’s eight win team wasn’t that bad (injuries, suspensions), but the turnaround by Richard Pitino has been impressive to say the least.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, they now draw the “dreaded” 5/12 match-up. While it’s been trendy in the past to call for the 12 seed to pull off the upset, Minnesota has the misfortune of drawing one of the top mid-majors in Middle Tennessee State, a 30 win team that knocked off Michigan State in the tournament last season.

#5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee State

  • Time/TV: 4:00 pm E.T. TNT
  • Spread: Middle Tennessee State (-1)

As previously mentioned, this Blue Raiders team knocked off the Spartans in the NCAA Tournament last season, led by Reggie Upshaw Jr. and Giddy Potts, both of which returned to Middle Tennessee this year.

Hailing from Conference USA, Middle Tennessee hasn’t played much opposition this season (only facing three top 50 programs), but they did blow out Vanderbilt back in December and haven’t lost since a road loss to UTEP on February 4th. They ripped through their conference tournament as well, winning all three games by double figures. Now they’ll focus on a Minnesota team that finished fourth in the Big Ten.

While Minnesota finished strong, winning eight games before losing to Wisconsin in the regular season finale, the Gophers have a serious problem heading into today’s outing. That issue? Depth.

Pitino’s squad lost guard Akeem Springs during the conference tournament, losing a capable three point shooter that was averaging 9.5 points per game in 24 minutes of playing time. Springs injury leaves the Gophers rotation excessively thin, with Minnesota utilizing six players in their most recent game this past weekend (excluding freshman Michael Hurt, who played a minute). The lack of depth ultimately resulted in Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer both playing 40 minutes, while Amir Coffey logged 39 and forward Jordan Murphy added an additional 35 minutes.

This is problematic because if Minnesota gets into foul trouble they’ll have a very limited number of options from the bench. Even worse, the team could get winded and worn down, especially if they advance into the weekend and need to play a second game in three days.

If Minnesota is going to avoid the upset they’ll likely need strong performances from Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy. Mason has led the team in scoring this season, averaging 15.5 points per game, while Jordan Murphy has been a defensive standout and fully capable of cleaning up on the boards (8.8 rebounds per game). The emergence of freshman Amir Coffey has also paid dividends and helped Minnesota make their turnaround this season. With limited options for their rotation, Minnesota will need their stars to perform if they want to advance.

The Blue Raiders return both Potts and Upshaw, two fully capable shooters that should drive Middle Tennessee’s offense. The biggest addition for Middle Tennessee this year, though, is Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams. The 6’8” forward has averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. It’ll be an interesting match, as Middle Tennessee has the 54th best offense (per KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Ratings) and will be squaring off against a Minnesota program with the 16th best defense (per KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Ratings).

Overall

So what happens? Minnesota will likely attempt to maintain their pace and focus on their defensive strengths. If Murphy and center Reggie Lynch can avoid foul trouble and establish themselves inside, it’ll be a huge benefit for Minnesota. The lack of depth and a thin rotation is a huge potential pitfall for the Gophers, and Minnesota will likely also need their guards to shoot efficiently to keep pace with the Blue Raiders.

Middle Tennessee will have plenty of offensive options, but they’re facing one of the top defensive units they’ll see this year. Still, Middle Tennessee is an experienced team and managed to land a huge upset last year against Michigan State.

When all is said and done this Minnesota team has the talent to advance, but a lack of depth will likely rear it’s ugly head for the Gophers and picking the Blue Raiders seems like one of the more feasible upsets that could happen in the first round. With that being said, I’m calling for a narrow upset, with the Gophers return to the NCAA Tournament being a brief one.

  • Pick Against the Spread: Middle Tennessee State