Don’t expect Minnesota to blink today in Assembly Hall.
The Indiana Hoosiers sure don’t.
“They won’t be afraid of the atmosphere,” forward Cody Zeller said. “We play well at home, but they beat us here last year. There won’t be too much of an advantage for us.”
Yes, Minnesota won at Assembly Hall 77-74 last year. Yes, the No. 8 Gophers are much better this season (see the blowout win at No. 12 Illinois as the biggest example).
Still, Zeller might be understating things a little. Assembly Hall will be packed and loud, especially now that the students are back from their holiday break. At the moment, there might not be a more intimidating arena in America.
This is IU’s first Big Ten home game and if it took two weeks to arrive, who cares.
The No. 5 Hoosiers (14-1 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten) and the Gophers (15-1, 3-0) should provide plenty of action and drama. So much so that Tom Crean nearly wishes he were a fan instead of a coach.
“It would be a great game to watch,” he said, “but I have to participate in it.”
Participation brings plenty to worry about. Minnesota has a tough, veteran squad that only has two freshmen on the roster and only one who plays, guard Wally Ellenson.
The Gophers are anchored by 24-year-old power forward Trevor Mbakwe, who started his college career at Marquette (with Crean as the coach) before transferring to Minnesota.
The 6-8, 245-pound Mbakwe is one of the most physically imposing players in the country. He’s rounding into form after missing most of last season with a knee injury. He averages 9.3 points and 7.9 rebounds, and is coming off a 19-point, 11-rebound effort at Illinois.
For comparision, a fully healthy Mbakwe averaged 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds as a sophomore and 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds as a junior.
“There’s no doubt Trevor makes a huge difference in their lineup,” Crean said.
Combine that difference with the improvement in players such as guards Andre Hollins (13.7 points, 3.7 assists), Joe Coleman (10.9 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Austin Hollins (10.8 points, 3.4 rebounds), plus forward Rodney Williams (12.6 points, 5.9 rebounds) and you have a powerhouse team capable of beating No. 22 Michigan State and Illinois by double digits.
“Anybody who’s known them and followed their team knew that was going to happen,” Crean said. “Now take what Trevor is doing, and how improved they are all, the commitment they have to the rebounding. They are really good in helping each other on defense. They’ve grown as a team. They play so hard.
We know what we’re in for. That was the only (home) loss we had a year ago. We’ve had some great battles with them. We’re well aware.”
Awareness starts with Zeller, who will likely have to deal the Mbakwe.
“They’ll be one of the toughest games we’ve had all year,” Zeller said. “Look at the teams they’ve beaten already. They’ve proven themselves that they’re a very tough team. They’ve got a lot of guys who can hurt you in a lot of ways. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
To reinforce that, Crean had a tape of last year’s Minnesota game playing in the locker room.
“This is a huge game,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “It’s big for us. It’s big for them. You’ve got two top-10 teams and it’s in the Big Ten. It doesn’t get any more high level than this.”
Well before the season Crean was talking up Minnesota’s prospects. Losing Mbakwe cost the Gophers a NCAA tourney opportunity last year, but they did finish as the NIT runner-up, with plenty of guys getting plenty of experience.
This year is the payoff.
“It’s not like I’m a prophet,” Crean said about his Minnesota optimisim, “but Trevor is too good. The improvement of those guys. The confidence the Hollins guys have. The way Rodney Williams has continued to develop. Joe Colemen is tough, aggressive, athletic. They’re a deep team. They have an understanding of what it takes to win at a high level. They’ve been through some things.”
Minnesota plays 12 guys eight minutes a game and more. IU has 11.
“We’ll both try to play deep, play good defense and get out in transition,” Crean said. “It will come down to shot selecton, rebounding and decision making.
“They lead the league in steals (154 total, 22 in three games). We want to create deflections. They want to get steals.”
In other words, the Gophers ain’t blinking.