Saturday's slate of college basketball is absolutely loaded with key matchups, but you aren't going to find a better one than No. 8 Minnesota heading into Assembly Hall to take on No. 5 Indiana.
To be fair, that's only the norm for how the Big Ten will be all season.
The conference is far-and-away the best in the country. It currently boasts three top-10 teams, five top-25 teams and has a chance to deliver nine squads to the field of 68 in March. It is going to be an absolute dog fight all year long, and as such, every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday will have at least one must-see battle.
This weekend will be no different when two serious contenders for the conference title take part in one of the most crucial games of the year.
Let's take a closer look at this drool-worthy matchup.
Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington, IN
When: Saturday, Jan. 12 at noon ET
Watch: Big Ten Network
Live Stream: Big Ten Network 2 Go
Minnesota Injury Report (via USA Today)
None to report
Indiana Injury Report (via USA Today)
F Austin Etherington, Knee, Out
G Maurice Creek, Foot, Out
Creek has proven to be a dangerous scoring threat from the perimeter when he is on the court, but his career at Indiana has been plagued by countless injuries.
Fortunately for Hoosier fans, the often-injured guard is close to a return to the hardwood (via InsideTheHall.com's Justin Albers):
Don Fischer said on tonight's pregame show that Maurice Creek is probably only a week away from returning to the floor. #Iubb— Justin Albers (@Justin_Albers) January 8, 2013
What They're Saying
We've already determined the massive implications of this game on this season in particular, but The Big Ten Network's Tom Dienhart gives a historical perspective:
Seriously. Watch this game. Assembly Hall is going to rocking harder than a Led Zeppelin concert. Especially with Gus Johnson on the call.
Of course, on the court, the Golden Gophers have an important attribute that will help them win in raucous environments like this one: Toughness (via ESPN's Jimmy Dykes):
If it comes down to overall team toughness, Gophers might win the Big10. Mbakwe sets that tone as well as anyone in college right now.— Jimmy Dykes (@JimmyDykesLive) January 10, 2013
Trevor Mbakwe has been consistently improving in his recovery from a torn ACL, and he will be a tough cover for Cody Zeller, who still needs to add lower-body strength.
Minnesota Player to Watch: Andre Hollins
Mbakwe is a force in the middle and Rodney Williams is a solid candidate to jump over someone, but I have to go with Hollins here.
While the dynamic guard leads a balanced Minnesota attack with "just" 13.7 points per game, he has the ability to explode for 30 on any given night.
Just ask Memphis, which was the victim of Hollins' 41-point (on just 16 field-goal attempts. Yikes) effort back in November.
In addition to being a deadly outside shooter (43.3 percent from deep on the season), Hollins is lightning quick and can get to the inside to either draw a foul (4.4 free-throw attempts per game) or distribute to a teammate (52.2 assist percentage, which ranks him in the top 100 in America).
If Hollins is matched up with Jordan Hulls, prepare yourself for a massive offensive game from the sophomore guard.
Indiana Player to Watch: Victor Oladipo
This isn't Cody Zeller's team. It's Victor Oladipo's.
Coming into the season, we thought we knew what we were getting with the junior Oladipo.
He would be an elite force on the defensive end who would use his elite athleticism to guard—and shut down—the opposing team's best player. That's an incredibly important player to have, but because he was never seen as an offensive threat, Oladipo was only regarded as a role player.
Well, that's changed just a little bit.
Oladipo has continued his reputation as one of the nation's best perimeter defenders. His 2.3 steals per game are 27th most in the country, and his ball deflections and constant harassment, which are unmeasured, are even more impressive.
But he's established himself as not just a good offensive player, but a great one.
Because of his athleticism, Oladipo is unstoppable when he gets in transition or gets a step towards the hoop. He has cut down on his long jumpers and as a result, he's shooting a ridiculous 67.2 percent from the field for 13.3 points per game.
Throw in his improved three-point shot (11-of-23, 47.8 percent), and Oladipo is first in the nation in effective field-goal percentage at 72.
There needs to be more talk about Oladipo for National Player of the Year, and he'll prove that on Saturday against the Golden Gophers.
Key Storyline to Watch: The Pace
If Indiana is able to get out and run, this game is over.
Not only will a fast-paced game benefit Oladipo and Zeller, who are unstoppable in the open court, it will open Indiana's lights out shooters and keep the crowd in the game.
If Minnesota wants to have any chance of winning this game, it needs to prevent that from happening. Tubby Smith's squad needs to make this a half-court slugfest, where Mbakwe and company would out-physical Zeller and the Hoosiers.
For what it's worth, the Golden Gophers are averaging 68.1 possessions per 40 minutes (185th in America) while Indiana averages a much swifter 71.9 (52nd).
The Golden Gophers have been the more impressive team this season. They have much better wins than the Hoosiers and have already proven they can win on the road with huge victories at Illinois and Florida State.
This team is not a fluke. On a neutral court, I would take them in an instant against the up-and-down, fairly unproven Hoosiers.
But Indiana is still incredibly deep, crawling with athletic, NBA talent and fortunate enough to have tons of impressive guard play. I can't go against the Hoosiers at home, even though Minnesota was the one team to knock them off at Assembly Hall last season.
Minnesota 73, Indiana 78