Rebound was the operative word Monday. Tom Crean might have been talking literally, but it also applies figuratively to a Minnesota team with eight losses in its last 11 games, a skid that started with an 88-81 loss at Assembly Hall on Jan. 12.
The Gophers have played them onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, and are coming off a pair of 20-plus point losses at Iowa and Ohio State. But IU’s concern of a more tangible nature entering Tuesday night’s 7 o’clock game at Williams Arena.
“This game’s going to come down to the rebounding, as much as anything else,” Crean said Monday. “It’s going to come down to the free throw line. When they win games, they’re phenomenal at the foul line, and they’re always phenomenal at the rebounding. We’ve got to make sure we’re really locked in to those aspects.”
The Hoosiers won the battle of the boards in that first contest, 36-34, no small feat against one of the Big Ten’s best rebounding teams. The Gophers rank second in the conference in rebounding margin on the season at plus 8.3, behind only Indiana’s plus 9.3 average. But in Big Ten play only, Minnesota is first at plus 6.6, ahead of second place Indiana’s plus 5.3 total. The Gophers are also first in offensive rebounds per game at 15, the same number they got in the previous meeting with the Hoosiers.
“They’re relentless. And the people they bring in off the bench are relentless with it,” Crean said. “They’re long, and they’re long and aggressive. Their guards rebound, certainly their forwards rebound, their bench rebounds and they’re excellent on the free throw line with their rebounding.”
Gopher senior Trevor Mbakwe leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 8.5 per game, a number that actually increases to 9.7 in league games only. Indiana’s Cody Zeller is second at 8.1 and 8.3, respectively. But the trump card for Indiana may be Christian Watford, who is ninth overall at 6.6 and eighth in Big Ten play at 6.9 boards per game. Minnesota also has Rodney Williams, who has been out most of the last few weeks with a shoulder injury but is expected to start Tuesday night.
“Trevor is the leading defensive rebounder in the league, he’s one of the leading guys in the country for offensive rebound percentage, certainly in our league,” Crean said. “Rodney Williams is as good a athlete as these guys will face. There might be some guys as good, but there’s none better.”
And with that said, Indiana clearly expects to see Minnesota’s best effort.
“I don’t think they’re too much different (from the first game),” IU junior Will Sheehey said. “They still offensive rebound, one of the best in the country. You go into every game the same way, trying to take away their strengths and capitalize on their weaknesses. They’re a fantastic offensive rebounding team, so we have to bring it.”