While most of us are eagerly awaiting any crumb of news relating to FSU's ongoing tango with the ACC and Big 12, today ESPN announced next season's match-ups for the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. The defending ACC Champions (remember the ACC officially recognizes the ACC Tournament Champion as the league champ) will play the Minnesota Golden Gophers, led by Head Coach Tubby Smith, on Tuesday, November 27th as part of the 14th annual tussle between the two conferences. With FSU playing at Michigan State last year, this match-up will take place at the Donald L. Tucker Center--or as I like to refer to it, "The Don." This marks the 4th time these two teams will have met in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge, the third time in Tallahassee, with the most recent game being a 75-61 Seminole victory in the 2007-08 season.
Minnesota finished 23-15 last year, capping their up and down season with a run to the NIT Championship game where they were dominated by Stanford 75-51. They finished just 6-12 in the Big 10, but played the majority of the season without their preseason All-Big 10 First Team power forward, Trevor Mbakwe, who went down with a knee injury in the 7th game. The Golden Gophers return all but one player and look to build on last year's finish, perhaps even sneaking into the top 4 of the Big 10.
Inside is a more detailed breakdown of this game
As mentioned before, last year was an up and down season for Minnesota. They went 12-1 out-of-conference, with their only loss coming at the hands of Dayton in the game Mbakwe was injured. However, it should be noted that they played NO true road games during that portion of the schedule. They then lost 12 out of their next 17 games and limped into the NIT after losing in the second round of the Big 10 Tournament. Yet, Tubby Smith, juggling a lineup featuring a quartet of freshman playing at least 11 mpg, managed to push all the right buttons during the team's NIT run where they pulled off four straight wins against La Salle, Miami, Middle Tennessee, and Washington before the loss to Stanford.
Now, all those freshman are a year older, Rodney Williams, the 6'7 junior who replaced the injured Mbakwe, blossomed into a guy who could be counted on (led the team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, and steals), and Mbakwe himself was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA, giving Tubby possibly his best team since taking the job in Minnesota before the 2007-08 season. In fact, several outlets have the Golden Gophers in their pre-pre-preseason top 25, including ESPN and CBS. Honestly, we should hope Minnesota rolls into Tallahassee ranked, so a victory would carry with it a bit more weight in the public's eye. (Not to mention our crowd seems to show up in much greater numbers and with much more fervor when teams come in with a number next to their name.)
So, how do the Noles match up against this borderline top-25 squad? Potentially well, but Michael Snaer and company better not go into the game overconfident.
At first blush Minnesota does not appear to be elite at anything. However, they also have few glaring weaknesses. According to Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free statistics (something every basketball fan should become familiar with if they have not done so already), Minnesota finished the year 48th in adjusted defensive efficiency (FSU was 15th) and 64th on offense (FSU was 75th--our best finish in years). And despite being on the smallish side (their tallest player last year was 6'11 Ralph Sampson III, who has graduated) Tubby Smith's men ranked 35th in offensive rebounding percentage--and that was without Mbakwe for most of the year, who averaged a double-double of 13.9 ppg and 10.5 rpg during the 2010-11 campaign.
Ironically, Minnesota's one true weakness mirrored Florida State's Achilles Heel for the last...decade; turnovers. The Golden Gophers turned the ball over on 22.8% of their possessions last year, ranking 301st out of 345 teams. Of course, one of the 44 teams below them was FSU, who ranked 323rd. However, unlike FSU, I would expect Minnesota to improve in this department fairly significantly as this was the highest turnover rate of the Tubby Smith era, with a healthy portion of them attributable to the aforementioned freshman. Starting freshman point guard, Andre Hollins, actually had a negative assist to turnover ratio of 1.8:2.1 per game. With nearly their entire roster returning, it stands to reason those turnover numbers will come down.
At this point (and this game is admittedly a long way off. Heck FSU will still likely add another recruit), the outcome of the game will appear to hinge on three factors:
1. How quickly can the Noles become comfortable in their new roles? FSU loses six players, including three starters, off of last year's top 15 team. Now, the likely replacements--guys like Ian Miller, Okaro White, Terry Whisnant, Kiel Turpin, and Aaron Thomas--are talented, but Leonard Hamilton's teams are notorious for taking a month or two to round into form. While this will at least be a home game, an experienced team like Minnesota who returns essentially everyone will likely be humming on all cylinders a week or two into the season.
2. How well can Trevor Mbakwe recover from his injury? At this point all signs point to him being healthy in time for the season. That said, a knee injury is a knee injury and until the potential NBA power forward proves he has the same bounce he had before he went down, questions will linger.
3. Can FSU effectively utilize its significant size advantage? FSU will likely have three guys over 7 feet tall on next year's roster (how much and/or soon they all play is another question) with another three guys in the 6'8 or 6'9 range. Meanwhile, Minnesota will have 6'11 rising sophomore Elliott Eliason along with Mbakwe and Williams--6'8 and 6'7 respectively--manning the paint. On paper this should favor FSU, but as we have seen over the last few years, at times our size becomes a liability when faced with a smaller, quicker opposing front line and Hamilton is forced to adjust the game plan. This could prove true again if our guys are unable to get around screens and rising senior shooting guard, Julian Welch, is allowed to get open looks from the outside. Welch was a 43.8% shooter from three-point land last year, connecting on 46 of his 105 attempts.
Lastly, what does this say about how the ACC/ESPN views our prospects for next season? Generally, the match-ups in this Challenge try to be as balanced as possible in terms of coming up with competitive games. Accordingly, this game comes as a bit of a disappointment after our last couple match-ups against Michigan State and Ohio State. Minnesota does not carry the cache of other Big 10 teams (I was personally hoping for Michigan), so a home win against them may not register very much with the general public. On the other hand, with Minnesota projected to be a borderline top-25 team, maybe this is a good sign for the Noles? Tubby Smith has guided Minnesota to 20 wins in four of the previous five seasons, and the Golden Gophers are fully capable of winning this game.
Or maybe this was just the best the two leagues could come up with, while trying to avoid recent rematches and ensuring teams who were on the road last year got a home game this year. Potential preseason number 1 Indiana was almost a lock to be matched up with UNC in the event's marquee game, and Michigan was given a home game after playing at Clemson last year. There would have been much more local buzz if Michigan State was sent to Tallahassee and Minnesota to Miami, but perhaps the
coaches TV Execs did not want a rematch.
At any rate, with home losses being weighted much heavier by the RPI than road or neutral losses, this game almost feels like a lose-lose situation. If we win we were supposed to, and if we lose it hurts the RPI and might be seen as "worse" than losing to Ohio State, Indiana, or Michigan State (This is why we really need to hope Minnesota comes in ranked).