Despite winning just five of their final 16 games, culminating in a first-round loss in the Big Ten Tournament to Illinois, there was little doubt the Minnesota Golden Gophers would be in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Big wins over Indiana and Michigan State were particularly hard for the tournament committee to ignore, and the overall strength of the Big Ten definitely helped.
Minnesota is the No. 11 seed in the South Region, and will travel to Austin, Texas to take on No. 6 seed UCLA on Friday night. The Bruins won the Pac-12 regular season title and made it to the conference tournament championship game before losing to Oregon. The Bruins enter the Big Dance with a 25-9 record (13-5 in the Pac-12).
The Golden Gophers (20-12, 8-10 in the Big Ten) have been a popular pick to pull an upset in the first round, but what are their chances to live up to that hype?
The Golden Gophers are currently 17th in the country in rebounding (38.8 per game), while the Bruins are 97th in the country (36.3 per game) and the worst rebounding team in the Pac-12. Forwards Trevor Mbakwe (8.7 rebounds per game) and Rodney Williams (5.1 rebounds per game) will be the key catalysts for Minnesota, and controlling the glass on both ends of the floor will be essential to victory.
Minnesota’s late-season slide coincided with a lack of offensive output, as they have scored more than 65 points just four times in their last 14 games. Not surprisingly, the Golden Gophers won three of those four contests. If that trend is to turn around on Friday night, guards Andre Hollins (13.9 points per game) and Austin Hollins (10.6 per game) will have to lead the charge. Williams, the team’s third-leading scorer (10.3 points per game) will have to be a consistent force all game long as well.
The Golden Gophers have struggled with turnovers, and the Bruins are averaging nearly 75 points per game (74.7, 28th in the country). Giving UCLA extra opportunities via mental lapses is a recipe for a blowout.
UCLA’s best player and leading scorer is guard Shabazz Muhammad (17.8 points per game), and he is also second on the team in rebounding (5.3 per game). Muhammad’s scoring prowess will be even more important on Friday night now that the Bruins are without second-leading scorer Jordan Adams (15.3 points per game), who suffered a broken right foot during the Pac-12 Tournament.
Just one other player averages double-figures in points for the Bruins, and Muhammad is a physical mismatch for Minnesota’s backcourt. So look for the highly-touted freshman to have the ball in his hands plenty on Friday night, but the Gophers are certain to make a concerted effort to negate him with double-teams.
Any hope the Bruins have to neutralize the rebounding advantage the Gophers have will largely rest with freshman forward Kyle Anderson. He is the team’s leading rebounder (8.6 per game), and has to stay out of foul trouble so UCLA’s depth is not further tested.
Score Prediction: UCLA 67, Minnesota 62
Brad Berreman is a contributing writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.