Before the season even started, Indiana coach Tom Crean had Minnesota pegged as one of the ascending teams in the Big Ten. It’s a bit of a surprise to most that the Golden Gophers come into Saturday’s noon game against No. 5 Indiana at Assembly Hall with a 15-1 record and the nation’s No. 8 ranking, but Crean had at least something like this pegged from the beginning.
“It’s not like I’m a prophet,” Crean said. “You could just tell. Trevor’s too good. Trevor Mbakwe is too good of a player. The improvement of those guys. I think when you look at the confidence that the Hollins guys have and the way Rodney Williams has continued to develop. Joe Coleman is tough, aggressive, athletic, and now playing with an incredible amount of confidence after what he did the other night. … They’re a deep team, they’re not deep just because they’re older and because they have numbers. They’re deep because they have an understanding of what it takes to win at a high level.”
It does start with Mbakwe, the sixth-year forward who actually played for Crean at Marquette during Crean’s last year with the Golden Eagles in 2007-08. He’s been through a lot since then, transferring to Miami-Dade Community College and then Minnesota, making his way through some complicated legal trouble and suffering a season-ending ACL tear last season. He’s still working his way back to 100 percent and only playing 20.1 minutes per game so far this season, but he’s still rebounding at an insane rate, ranking second in the Big Ten with 7.9 rebounds per game. He grabs 17.9 percent of his team’s missed shots, which gives him the sixth-highest offensive-rebound percentage in the nation. He’s also averaging 9.3 points per game and shooting 58.6 percent from the field.
“He’s a difference-maker,” Crean said. “We knew that in high school. … He’s got a real maturity on the court that’s there with his patience. He’s playing extremely hard, adding things to his game, especially with the pick-and-roll game. Sometimes he slips, sometimes he rolls. He spreads out and seals, but he’s always been a very tough-minded, very physical player. Now he’s just that much more so after the year off. I’ve always thought he would be a pro. Nothing’s every changed my mind on that, even with the injury. I don’t have any doubt he’ll play in the NBA a long time, and deservedly so. We said it before he got hurt, we said it in the fall, and nothing’s changed. He’s as hard of a matchup as there is in the league.”
But there is also much more beyond Mbakwe that makes the Golden Gophers the best offensive rebounding team in the nation. The Golden Gophers grab 48.5 percent of the available rebounds on their end of the floor. Athletic power forward Rodney Williams has a lot to do with that, as do back-up big men Elliot Eliason, Maurice Walker aond Oto Osenieks.
“They’re relentless,” Crean said. “They’re very, very aggressive. They do it off transition. They do it off regular half-court offense, and they’re incredible off the free throw line. We’ve just gotta be locked in full tilt to that, to all of those aspects. …. They’re rebounding on both ends. I think when they go to the bench, some of those guys, they know their role. They have to get rebounds. I think Coleman is an outstanding rebounder. But when you’ve got two guys like Trevor and Rodney Williams who are averaging a little over six offensive rebounds between the two of them, there’s not too many guys in the country at that level. … They never stop going, and if you don’t meet them first, they’re going to put you out of bounds.”
The Golden Gophers are also much more established in the backcourt than they were a year ago. Sophomore Andre Hollins took the reins toward the end of last season and helped lead Minnesota to the NIT final. He’s averaging 13.7 points per game. Shooting guard Austin Hollins is scoring 10.8 per game and Joe Coleman is averaging 10.9 per game after winning at Illinois on Wednesday.
The Gophers have victories over Michigan State and Illinois in league play already and beat memphis, Stanford, Florida State, and Southern California in non-league play. The only loss they’ve suffered came at the hands of No. 1 Duke.
“They’ve really grown as a team, and I like watching them because they play so hard,” Crean said. “We fully know what we’re in for tomorrow.”
The matchup between two Top 10 teams is actually the first at Assembly Hall since Feb. 19 when No. 10 Indiana lost to No. 7 Ohio State, 82-71.
“It’s a huge game,” junior guard Victor Oladipo said. “It’s a big game for us. It’s a big game for them. It’s two top 10 teams in the Big Ten. It doesn’t get any more high-level than that.”
NOTE: Crean said he expects redshirt junior guard Maurice Creek to be available by the end of next week as he recovers from his foot injury. He also expects senior forward Derek Elston to be good to go after tweaking his knee before Monday’s game at Penn State.