Photo courtesy of MTSU Sidelines
The twelfth-seeded Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-4) are set to play the fifth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers (24-9) the NCAA Round of 64 in Milwaukee on Thursday.
Just a year after winning only two conference games in the Big 10, the Gophers made impressive strides under head coach Richard Pitino by finishing fourth overall in the Big 10. They defeated the Michigan State Spartans before being eliminated by the eventual tournament champion Michigan Wolverines.
To learn more about the Golden Gophers, we talked to E.J. Stevens, lead basketball writer for The Gopher Report.
Q. Minnesota has four players that average double figure scoring. Is there any player that needs to step up and take their game to the next level in order to win?
A: With the loss of starting senior shooting guard Akeem Springs to an achilles injury last week against Michigan State, Minnesota’s sixth man Dupree McBrayer will need to take a step forward as he steps back into a starting role. He has been playing well lately, even before the Springs injury, as he has scored in double figures in five of his past seven games. He played all 40 minutes against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Saturday and had 14 points on 5/10 shooting. He is just an energy guy who has a lightning quick first step and loves to get to put the ball on the floor with his left hand. When he is scoring the ball at an efficient clip, it makes Minnesota an even better team.
Q. You have one of the best shot-blockers in the nation in Reggie Lynch, but he can also score averaging 8 points a game. He’ll likely be matched up with Reggie Upshaw or JaCorey Williams. How important will his head-to-head game with either of those two be?
A: It’ll be an interesting matchup either way and I would be surprised to see Lynch stick with either one of these two guys the whole game. Lynch is a great rim protector and creates tons of problems underneath because guys have to change their shots close to the hoop because he is so big and his shot blocking timing is excellent. Upshaw’s ability to step out and hit deep jump shots could cause some big time problems for Lynch because he prefers to play in the paint and he doesn’t have the footspeed to guard out on the perimeter. Williams has a ton of talent and athleticism as well and neither of these guys is the true big center that Lynch is used to matching up with in the Big Ten. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota play some 2-3 zone like Syracuse did against the Blue Raiders last year. I will say that Lynch is the ultimate X-Factor when he is staying out of foul trouble for the Gophers because he literally changes everything at the rim for opposing offenses.
Q. Minnesota is obviously playing some great basketball as well, being winners of nine of their last eleven as you mentioned. What’s been key in that stretch, as well as the whole season? They’ve taken massive strides over last season when they won two conference games.
A: Their defense has been the biggest key all season long. They aren’t the greatest jump shooting team so they need to get stops consistently to be able to finish off games and that has led them to get on a roll in the last half of the conference slate. Point guard Nate Mason is a very good perimeter defender as is freshman wing Amir Coffey. With Reggie Lynch protecting the rim with nearly four blocks per game and sophomore forward Jordan Murphy cleaning up the glass to the tune of seven double-digit rebound games in their last ten outings, that is a recipe for success. On the offensive end, they have a lot of balance with four different players averaging in double figures and when they are sharing the ball and not trying to always try to take guys one on one they are able to get to the rim and create high percentage looks for one another.
Q. For Blue Raider fans who may not know, who would you consider to be THE guy on the team and why?
A: Definitely junior guard Nate Mason. He was named 1st Team All-Big Ten last week after averaging 15.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game this season. He doesn’t shoot a very high percentage at 38%, but he has the ability to score in bunches when he is attacking and taking good shots. He can pull up and hit three’s from anywhere on the court but he is at his best when he is driving to the hoop as he is a great finisher around the rim. He also leads the team in assists and was second in the Big Ten after dishing out five per game. When Mason is playing his best and taking high percentage looks from the field, Minnesota is very tough to beat. If Mason is on his game he could take Minnesota on a little run this postseason, but if he is struggling then it could be a quick exit for the Gophers.
Q. Though it may be simple, what is the biggest key in this game for Minnesota?
A: Plain and simple, staying out of foul trouble. The Gophers only played with a six-man rotation on Saturday against the Michigan Wolverines after losing Akeem Springs the day before with an injury. Depth is an issue right now and they can ill afford to have a guy like Murphy or Lynch in foul trouble with the way that Middle Tennessee can score the ball. Freshman forward Eric Curry does a very solid job in the frontcourt but he is not quite the player that Murphy is yet. If Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch gets in foul trouble, his backup Bakary Konate is a significant downgrade at center. If the Gophers stay out of foul trouble I would be surprised if this isn’t a close game that goes down to the wire.
Q. What is your final score prediction and why?
A: This is a matchup where you can essentially throw the seeds out the window. Both teams can defend and have veteran players who can really score the ball. With Minnesota’s lack of depth right now and the experience that the Blue Raiders have with Upshaw, Williams, and Potts, I think that will allow them to pull out a win late. If the Gophers are going to win, they will need to really play a great defensive game while finding a way to keep by Lynch and Murphy on the court more than 25 minutes. I think the score will be:
Middle Tennessee – 76
Minnesota – 71
The Blue Raiders and Golden Gophers will go to battle on Thursday at 3 p.m. on TNT.