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Minnesota (18-13) vs. Northwestern (18-12)



The Sports Network

DATE & TIME: Thursday, March 8, 5:30 p.m. (ET)

FACTS & STATS: Site: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (18,345) -- Indianapolis, Indiana. Television: ESPN2. Home Record: UofM 13-6, NU 11-5. Away Record: UofM 3-6, NU 4-7. Neutral Record: UofM 2-1, NU 3-0. Conference Record: UofM 6-12, NU 8-10. Series Record: Minnesota leads, 90-61.

GAME NOTES: The seventh-seeded Northwestern Wildcats will begin their postseason as they square off with the No. 10 seed, Minnesota Golden Gophers, in the opening round of the 2012 Big Ten Conference Tournament.

The winner of this matchup will advance to Friday's quarterfinal round to take on the second-seeded Michigan Wolverines.

While the Wildcats are in a do-or-die scenario in regards to earning an at- large bid in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, they do not have a cakewalk to the quarterfinal round by any means. NU and Minnesota split its season-series in 2011-2012. The Golden Gophers dominated the Cats, 75-52, in their first matchup in Minnesota, before being defeated, 64-53, on Feb. 18 in Evanston.

Northwestern (18-12) is on the verge of its first NCAA Tournament bid in school history. Coach Bill Carmody will need to lead his team to at least one win in the conference tourney to guide the Wildcats to the Big Dance. NU has had an up-and-down season. After a magnificent 10-1 start, the Wildcats lost four of their next five games. NU ended the season strong by winning two of its last three, and the loss was came on a buzzer beater in a thriller with the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes. The Wildcats' ability to stay in consideration is remarkable considering they were bit by the injury bug this year, which has left them without any true post players. Carmody's team makes up for its lack of size by playing a challenging 1-3-1 zone defense and running a Princeton offense which features a healthy dosage of shots from distant.

Minnesota (18-13) fell out of contention as it suffered a six-game losing streak which it just ended with a win over the bottom-feeding Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday. Coach Tubby Smith's team has not met its high expectations this season after also dealing with some potential limiting injuries. The Golden Gophers are still quite capable of pulling off upsets, as they are the only team to beat Indiana at Assembly Hall this season. Minnesota had really struggled to produce offensively before defeating Nebraska 81-69 in its regular season finale, as it was held to 47.5 ppg in its two games prior.

The Golden Gophers' recent offensive troubles are not a good sign for them, as they will have to match the Big Ten's top scoring duo. NU's senior forward and leader John Shurna has put together a sensational senior campaign. As he has pushed the Wildcats through the season, Shurna won the Big Ten scoring title and became the school's all-time leading scorer. NU's success has also been charged by Drew Crawford. The junior swingman finished fifth in the league in scoring while displaying incredible athleticism on both ends of the floor. JerShon Cobb, Dave Sobolewski, and Alex Marcotullio have all improved as the season progressed.

Shurna will have to outplay Minnesota's junior forward Rodney Williams, who comes in leading the team's active players in scoring and rebounding. Chip Armelin produced 20 points off the bench in the team's recent win over Nebraska, as he and Austin Hollins both went 4-of-6 from three-point range in the contest. The Golden Gophers will get back point guard Julian Welch for the postseason as he has fully recovered from a hip injury that sidelined him the past 2.5 games. Minnesota may be without its senior center Ralph Sampson III, who injured his knee in practice on Monday and has not practiced since. Sampson III's numbers are not overwhelming, but his 6-11 frame against the undersized Wildcats could be the difference in the game.

Northwestern has been playing its best basketball in awhile despite having three of its starters in the top 10 in the league in minutes played per game. Shurna and Crawford are going to be the two best players on the floor, if they get help from the supporting cast the Wildcats will advance.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 75, Minnesota 69

03/08 10:32:04 ET