MILWAUKEE (AP)—Minnesota watched a movie about LeBron James for inspiration on the way to Milwaukee for its first round NCAA tournament game.
Xavier’s Jordan Crawford? He dunked on James this summer.
When the Gophers and Musketeers meet Friday in the West regional, the styles and defensive philosophies will be very similar, but who carries each in the clutch is quite different.
No. 11 Minnesota (21-13) doesn’t have a go-to player with three starters averaging double figures. Crawford averages 19.7 points per game for No. 6 seed Xavier (24-8), which is looking to sustain its run of NCAA tournament success under first-year coach Chris Mack.
“There’s been so many games where he’s been just unbelievable,” Xavier sophomore guard Brad Redford said. “He makes the big shot. He always wants the ball in his hands. As a team, we all want it in his hands, too.”
Xavier has been in nine of the last 10 NCAA tournaments and won at least one game in each the last three seasons, but Crawford brought a different dynamic when he transferred from Indiana.
“There’s no question he’s our best player,” Mack said. “We lean on him a lot on the offensive and defensive end. We’re not relying on him, but there’s no question he has the ability to take over a game.”
For Crawford’s part, he was desperate to get back on the court during his redshirt year. His chance to play against James this summer during a pickup game at a skills academy run by the superstar at the University of Akron came as a welcome distraction.
Now, there’s more than 1 million hits on Google for “Jordan Crawford dunks on LeBron James” online, but Crawford downplays the video that went viral.
“It was great to just be on the same court with him,” he said. “It was very important. I was sitting out a year. I got to see where my skills were against the top player.”
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith coached Crawford’s older brother, Joe, at Kentucky and Smith said he’s known of Jordan’s abilities since he was young.
“You don’t stop great players. Players like Jordan, you just have to try to contain them and hope that you can keep the ball off him as much as possible, make it tough to get his shots, make him work both ends of the court,” Smith said. “One of the problems we have is guarding perimeter players that are long and athletic.”
The Gophers turned their year around without three expected contributors. Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe became involved in legal entanglements before the season and point guard Al Nolen was ruled academically ineligible in January.
“It looked bad for us for a while,” guard Lawrence Westbrook said. “We got off on the wrong foot.”
That gave opportunities to guard Devoe Joseph and center Colton Iverson, two sophomores. For all the public problems the Gophers had, Smith said the locker room was calm.
“Usually the perception is that there may be something else wrong when something happens with one or two players,” Smith said. “We really haven’t had many internal issues, and that’s the beauty of it, because, you know, we have good people and good players that have done the things we’ve asked them to do.”
Minnesota’s last tournament win came in 1997, but Smith has coached in 43 NCAA tournament games. For Mack, it’ll be his first even though he doesn’t feel any different after spending seven years at Xavier as an assistant.
“I get off the bus and I’ve got my 4-year-old and 3-year-old and they’re screaming at me to get their camera and stuff like that,” Mack said. “I wouldn’t say I’m the man.”
At least the Musketeers’ trip was shorter. The Gophers drove six hours because the team’s travel distance was under the 400 miles the NCAA requires to be reimbursed for airfare.
The long trip started with guys joking and making up rap songs, then the team napped and watched movies.
“I thought Milwaukee was a little closer than that,” Minnesota forward Damian Johnson said. “It was kind of painful.”
Ralph Sampson III, Minnesota’s 6-foot-11 center, said he spent the majority of the trip bent awkwardly between two seats, waking up at times to adjust his position the best he could.
A win over Xavier would keep the Gophers from the long trip home at least another day.
“Hopefully,” Sampson said. “We can stay off that bus.”