Breaking down the Old Spice Classic title game:
Overview: Archie Miller’s Dayton squad fought for a pair of tough victories against Wake Forest and Fairfield to reach Sunday’s title game in the Old Spice Classic at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla. The Gophers recovered from a double-digit deficit against DePaul in their first game in Orlando and knocked off Indiana State on Friday, earning a shot at the program’s second nonconference tourney title under Tubby Smith. Last season, Minnesota defeated Western Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina to win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship.
Dayton has displayed offensive balance throughout the tournament. Six different players scored 10 points or more in the team’s two wins in Orlando. Both games were battles through the final minutes, proof that these Flyers -- sans Chris Wright and former coach Brian Gregory -- possess the same grit that fueled a 22-14 season and a trip to the Atlantic 10 tournament title game last season.
And the Flyers have managed to stifle 3-point shooters (opponents have hit just 28.1 percent of their attempts). The Gophers have struggled from beyond the arc (33 percent), but their young backcourt matures with each game. Freshman Andre Hollins scored 16 points and hit 4 of 5 from the 3-point line against Indiana State on Friday. Junior college transfer Julian Welch scored 17 against the Sycamores. Sophomore Austin Hollins is averaging 1.5 steals per contest. And things get personal for Minnesota in the paint. The Gophers have recorded 32 blocks in their first six games. Star forward Trevor Mbakwe is responsible for 10 of them.
Both teams have ballhandling issues. Dayton and Minnesota average more than 15 turnovers per game. So this is the kind of game that could come down to one or two costly errors down the stretch. The Flyers will try to pressure Mbakwe, who failed to crack double digits against Indiana State. But under those circumstances Friday, the Gophers’ youngsters stepped up.
Smith won’t be stingy with the press. He has an athletic roster that’s built for the full-court pressure he enjoys. But Dayton has experience at every position. And the Flyers have already proved that they’re not the kind of team that will succumb to pressure.
I expect a battle.
Players to Watch: Mbakwe had an unusually quiet outing for the Gophers against Indiana State (nine points), a day after recording a double-double in the team’s win against DePaul (16 points, 12 rebounds). He’s been mentioned as a player who could be a part of the All-America conversation at the end of the season. Well, players in that category show up in big games. Mbakwe will have to carry the Gophers the same way he did last season when he earned MVP honors in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. It’s hard to imagine the Gophers winning the tournament title without Mbakwe making a big impact on offense.
Dillard, a transfer from Southern Illinois, looks comfortable in his new uniform. Against Fairfield on Friday, the junior scored 12 points. But he’s recorded 15 turnovers in the past four games. Those are the mistakes that could crush Dayton’s hopes of winning the tournament. The Flyers need Dillard to limit his turnovers.
X Factor: Were Minnesota junior Rodney Williams’ 18 points in Thursday’s win against DePaul a fluke? He had three against Indiana State on Friday. And Dayton senior Paul Williams has scored 15 or more in three games this season. In his other two games, he finished with just five. Which Paul Williams will show up against the Gophers on Sunday night?
Predictions: I’m sticking with Minnesota. Dayton hasn’t faced a player like Mbakwe, and Minnesota’s backcourt continues to grow. But I think this could be the kind of game that’s decided with a last-second shot or overtime. Minnesota 67, Dayton 66.