The Sports Network
By Andrew Sclight, Associate College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS: Williams Arena (14,625) -- Minneapolis, Minnesota. Television: Big Ten Network. Home Record: Northwestern 9-2, Minnesota 10-1. Away Record: Northwestern 3-4, Minnesota 2-3. Neutral Record: Northwestern 1-0, Minnesota 3-0. Conference Record: Northwestern 3-5, Minnesota 4-3. Series Record: Minnesota leads, 89-58.
GAME NOTES: The 16th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers aim for a fourth straight win as they return to Williams Arena Wednesday in continuing a tough Big Ten Conference slate against the Northwestern Wildcats.
Minnesota won for the fourth time in five games Saturday in a tough road test against Michigan. The Wolverines went ahead midway through the second half courtesy of a 12-2 run but Minnesota responded with a 10-3 spurt to gain the lead for good and hold off the hosts in the final minutes for a 69-64 triumph. The Golden Gophers shot 63.4 percent from the floor in the win and had to rally without the services of senior guard Al Nolen, who suffered a broken bone in his right foot in the first half and is out indefinitely. Helping to pick up the slack in a team effort was Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe, who both tallied 13 points and eight rebounds. Blake Hoffarber contributed 12 points, six assists and five rebounds, while Rodney Williams hit a pair of clutch three-pointers to finish with 10 points.
Northwestern had a stretch of four wins in five games before being handled at home Saturday by No. 18 Wisconsin in a 78-46 final. The Wildcats held their own early on before the Badgers' offense found a groove with NU senior point guard Michael Thompson on the bench after picking up two quick fouls. Wisconsin shot 62.1 percent from the field over the opening 20 minutes to take a 45-26 lead into intermission. It was more of the same in the second half as Northwestern struggled to find its shot. Luka Mirkovic and John Shurna each had 13 points to lead the 'Cats.
Minnesota holds an 89-58 lead over the Wildcats in the all-time series dating back to 1909. The season series has been split the last two years with both teams winning on their respective home floors on each occasion. The Gophers are 53-18 versus Northwestern in Minneapolis.
The Wildcats were beat at their own game against Wisconsin, which sank 12- of-26 from three-point range compared with NU's 2-of-10 showing. Northwestern is a prolific three-point shooting team with 173 thus far in 2010-11. Collectively, the 'Cats connect on 39.8 percent of their attempts from long range. The junior Shurna leads the Big Ten in three-point percentage at 54.0 percent with 47 triples and is tied for third place in the conference with a 19.2-point average. Thompson averages 13.9 points per game and is also second to Shurna with 43 three-pointers. Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Drew Crawford checks in at 12.8 points per contest with 31 threes, while the 6-11 center Mirkovic adds 9.2 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds. Overall, Northwestern averages a robust 76.5 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting. Opponents are limited to 67.8 points but still shoot a healthy 46.0 percent from the field and own a plus-2.4 edge on the boards (33.5-31.1).
The Golden Gophers have a balanced unit that features four double-figure scoring threats. The senior Hoffarber leads the way with 13.7 points per game and Mbakwe posts 13.2 points and a Big Ten best 10.3 rebounds per contest. Devoe Joseph averages 11.2 points and Sampson adds 10.6 per game to go with 5.6 rebounds and 42 blocks. Nolen was key to the Gophers' depth with an 8.4- point per-game average, contributing to a healthy 72.9 points per game overall. Minnesota shoots 46.7 percent from the field and 33.4 percent on threes. Hoffarber tops the roster with 49 triples and shoots 39.8 percent from beyond. The Golden Gopher defense is also a source of pride, with teams shooting just 39.3 percent from the field and averaging 67.2 points. Minnesota owns a plus-6.4 margin in the rebounding department, averaging nearly 40.0 per game (39.7-33.3).
Minnesota figures to continue its recent run through a tough Big Ten slate, even without Nolen. Northwestern has the ability to surprise teams with an explosion from the three-point game, but the Gophers are a much more well- rounded team and have already proved plenty resilient this season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Minnesota 71, Northwestern 65