The Naysayer: Minnesota Beats Up On IU's Soft Front Court

Zeller’s lack of toughness continues to be a liability.

Mike Botkin is a lifelong Boilermakers fan. He’ll be offering the dissenting opinion on the IU hoopla all season.

Well, Hoosier fans, how does it feel to get slapped around a little bit? Last night’s game was not for the fainthearted. Just ask Cody Zeller, who spent a good portion of the game picking himself up off the floor. And before you say “What about the Boilers? They stink!”, consider this: IU is the one with Final Four hopes this year, and they continue to prove how vulnerable they are.

We live in a “what have you done for me lately” society, so many Hoosiers fans had forgotten about Minnesota and its early season prowess (15-1). Early in the Big Ten schedule, the Gophers seemed to be joining the cellar dwellers of the conference. But this game was a stark reminder that they remain very much in the hunt for a tournament bid. And I have to say, it was fun to watch.

The inside players of Minnesota took IU’s bigs to the woodshed. Trevor Mbakwe (21 points, 12 rebounds) set the tone of the game early when he stuffed Zeller in a way the big man hasn’t felt all year. Zeller looked frail and timid from that point on. Even when Mbakwe went out with foul trouble with 10 minutes left in the first half, IU could only muster a 4-point halftime lead.

The real player of the game, however, was backup center Elliott Eliason, who came in and scored seven points, grabbed five boards, and dished out an assist. That continued Minnesota’s dominance on the inside while the Mbakwe was on the bench.

Jordan Hulls had a fine first half, prompting television announcer Dan Dakich to squeal with joy about him. But other than Hulls’ first half contribution (14 points), that’s about all we heard from him until a desperation shot with just seconds remaining.

Several other players who played key roles in IU’s recent win streak were conspicuously absent from the TV chatter as well. Will Sheehey’s steal and subsequent one hand slam with a little over 9 minutes left in the first was one of the very few highlights for him. Coach Tom Crean called Christian Watford a “non-factor” in the game. And Kevin ‘Yogi’ Ferrell hit just 2 of 10 from the field.

The win was a much bigger deal for Minnesota than the loss is for IU. The Hoosiers will have to claw their way to a Big Ten title now, but they still have the inside track. For the Gophers, the last win over a No. 1 was back in 1989. I was alive, but many current fans can only relate from the stories their elders tell them. Now, a new generation of Minnesotans has a story about storming the court. (Incidentally, that was not just permissible last night, as some have debated, but it would be a grand statement of apathy if they hadn’t.)

The Hoosiers need to take care of business the rest of the way, which will be no easy task. With three games remaining, the scariest one is the last at Michigan. But that contest looms large only if Ohio State and Iowa are beaten prior. Everyone knows Zeller is the key to the Hoosiers’ success, but if you’re an IU fan, you can’t like what you see from a guy who seems to lack the killer instinct.

March Madness is coming, and Minnesota just showed the country how easy it is to beat the Hoosiers if you play the slightest bit physical.