Cue the music, “One shining moment”…….”Feel the beat of your heart”…….”Feel the wind in your face”………[Side note --- Huh??, Wind in my face? Where are they playing these basketball games?]……….”ONE SHINING MOMENT!!!” That is right, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are in the National (Invitational Tournament) Championship game.
Fresh off a game against the Pac 12 Champion, Washington Huskies, the Gophers are squaring off against the Stanford Cardinal. The Cardinal are another Pac 12 team riding a hot streak, having won 7 of their last 9 games. After nearly gifting the Huskies (and Pac 12 officials) the All-Pac 12 Championship game, the Gophers enter this game having survived some nail-biters, albeit self-inflicted, along the way.
On paper, the Cardinal are not an imposing team. In fact, they are actually built similarly to the Gophers. Young and fast. They are led by a freshman G, Chasson Randle, and two sophomore guards, Aaron Bright and Anthony Brown. It is a talented back court. If they have a weakness, it is that they are turnover prone. The one thing that might separate the Cardinal back court from the Gophers is their ability to shoot the basketball. Both Randle and Bright are averaging better than 43% from beyond the arc. It is critical that the Gophers perimeter defenders, Dre, Austin Hollins (who had a great game defending Terrance Ross), Ahmnisi, and Coleman fight through screens to defend the Cardinal shooters. They did a great job against future lottery pick Ross in the semifinal. However, they did a terrible job finding Washington’s other shooter, C.J. Wilcox, who nearly shot the Huskies to a win.
Another way to beat this Cardinal team is to exploit their backcourt’s youth. They are turnover prone and so pressure, consistently applied, could yield positive results. For Dre in particular, if he can outplay his freshman counterpoint, Randle, the Gophers will be at a distinct advantage.
Up front, the Cardinal run out a pair of Joshes, senior Owens and sophomore Huestis. Neither should present much a test, think History of Television exam, for Rodney Williams and E2. E2 in particular, if he continues to play smart basketball, could have a big game. Against Washington, the Gophers offense stalled in the second half when it got away from the using E2 as the fulcrum in the offense. When E2 was the pick, roller, or distributor, the Gophers were getting a lot more open looks.
Obviously, continued quality play from Rodney Williams, averaging better than 20 points a game, is a must. Though, the way he has been playing lately, and this next phrase would have been a preposterous statement nominee at the start of the season, his quality play is almost expected. He has controlled games to the point where, it might actually be surprising if he did not submit a solid effort.
The wild card in this game might be the inspired play of Andre Ingram. He has been a spark off the bench and is able to spell E2 with high quality minutes. He attacks the rim like it has been disparaging his mother. And, he defends the paint with a ferocity that you cannot teach. It is instinctual. Even though he has a fairly limited range of skills offensively, his energy is a critical contribution to the team. Provided that motor is still firing like a finely tuned German engine, the Gophers will be a in a position to make it a hat trick of National Invitational Tournament titles (yes, I am refusing to vacate Clem’s title in 1996).
Ultimately, Dre, Williams, and Ingram are the difference. The Gophers play two halves like they did in the first half against the Huskies.
Prediction: Gophers 78 Cardinal 63