Friday, 8:00 PM – Texas Tech vs Minnesota
I’m going to guess that Minnesota may feel a bit aggrieved at having to travel on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament considering they currently enjoy a better RPI than their opponents, Texas Tech. It’s another odd footnote for Minnesota, who’ve lived through a rather bizarre but ultimately successful season to this point. The Gophers have toppled the likes of Michigan, Penn State, and OlE Miss this season, showcasing their true potential. There’s also the reality that Minnesota’s been one erratic team at times though, as evidenced by their eighth place finish in the Big Ten despite beating two of the top three when all was said and done. It’s a good thing Minnesota ended up getting those big wins too, as they hardly made the best case for themselves late, getting plonked by Illinois in the regular season finale by Illinois, 3-1, and then getting smashed by Nebraska in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, 4-1. It underlines some of the problems this Minnesota team can experience as they gamble with a high line. The defense wasn’t awful in the league, but the late season slide shows that things can go very wrong when the rearguard isn’t on their game. It’s led to goalkeeper Tarah Hobbs making a staggering one hundred eighteen saves, which has to be some kind of record for a team getting an at-large bid this season. Hobbs has worked miracles at times and has needed to, considering they scored just eight goals in the league, tied for worst in the Big Ten. More bad news? Leading scorer Katie Thyken was injured in the regular season finale and did not play in the Big Ten Tournament defeat. This team had scoring problems before Thyken went down, and if she’s still out on Friday, it’s difficult to see where goals are going to come from, as Haley Helverson, the next leading scorer, had just four on the year. There are some great young pieces here, but there’s a distinct feeling that Minnesota’s hit a wall, having won just two of their last seven. It probably adds up to defeat on Friday against the Red Raiders.
Another reason to be bearish on Minnesota’s chances are that their shaky offense is facing one of the nation’s best defenses in terms of goals allowed. Texas Tech allowed just seven goals against them all season, the second best number in the nation. That includes just two in eight league games, and when you factor in three of those seven allowed coming in one game against Long Beach State, it’s easy to see how TTU got to 17-2-2. Of course, the Red Raiders also had to scramble to make the Big Dance thanks to a non-conference schedule which didn’t exactly go to plan for them as far as strength of schedule is concerned. In fact, had TTU not beaten West Virginia in the penultimate regular season game, the Red Raiders might not have even drawn an invitation. Full-back Jaelene Hinkle is as dangerous as any wide defender in the country, and the 4-2-2-2 formation the Red Raiders have run with have given her a license to roam forward to stretch the field. Add in other talents like Haley Haagsma and Kansas Bayly, and you’ve got a defense that’s more than capable of shutting down most sides. I’m going out on a limb and saying Victoria Esson netting All-Big XII First Team honors was a bit generous, but the New Zealand native has an experienced set of hands and has a great unit playing in front of her. The offense has tended to cut it frustratingly close at times, such as in recent weeks, as they’ve scored multiple goals in just one of their past six. After an eye-opening rookie season, Janine Beckie has found it harder given the increased attention coming her way but has still scored nine goals as a sophomore. It’s very much scorer by committee after Beckie, but the defensive performance has meant that TTU hasn’t needed much in the offense department for much of the year. The Red Raiders’ biggest asset might be on the sideline, as their wily livewire coach Tom Stone is one of the best at this level. There may be some doubts given TTU’s lack of a truly emphatic non-conference win, but this club showed their potential on this stage last year when they pushed Florida State to the limit. Older and wiser, these Red Raiders could bring back multiple wins in this competition to Lubbock this season.
Prediction – Texas Tech 2 – 0 Minnesota
Minnesota Tournament Prediction – First Round
Texas Tech Prediction – Sweet Sixteen