I had originally hoped to include several Watership Down references in this column. This novel of course tells the story of a dystopian rabbit society overcome by infighting and a totalitarian government. Note to all those with children or thinking of having children, even though rabbits are cute and the movie version of this is a cartoon, don’t let your five year old watch it, or they may be writing about it on a basketball blog a couple of decades later.

By now you of course know that Jackrabbits of South Dakota State didn’t implode, and gave the Gophers their first real scare at home this year. Against SDSU, the Gophers were caught in a time warp, or maybe the ghost of Dan Monson was haunting The Barn. The Gophers struggled in the half court offense, occasionally on defense, and especially on rebounding.

As Gopher Nation pointed out, the Jackrabbits got offensive rebounds on more than half their shots. Offensive rebounds and turnovers have allowed the Gophers to either hang around a lot longer than they should have (Florida State) or coast to wins (everyone but SDSU). It was the opposite story last night as South Dakota State shot the ball 13 more times than the Gophers. Despite being the bigger and more athletic team, the Gophers gave up 19 offensive rebounds (compared to the Gophers 8). Dan Coleman, who continues his hot shooting, still refuses to crash the offensive glass, and Spencer Tollackson is still having problems getting into position and off the floor. Three of SDSU’s players had more rebounds than Damian Johnson, the leading Gopher rebounder.

On paper the Gopher offense had a very good night. As a team they shot 56% from the field and 50% from behind the three point line. Their 10 three point attempts were a season low, which hopefully means that the Gophers are finally getting away from their nasty habit of throwing up three pointers instead of running the offense. However, at times last night a hasty three point shot would have at least been less painful to watch than the Gopher half court offense. The offensive stagnation didn’t last as long as it did last year, and obviously didn’t cost the Gophers the game, but it did serve as a reminder that if the Gophers are capable of playing as well as they have this year, they are also capable of playing badly as they did last year. For the second game in a row Lawrence McKenzie played more point guard than shooting guard, which limits his ability to create his own shots. As he adjusts to this new role, the Gophers will inevitably benefit, but right now we may all have to deal with some Dan Coleman-like growing pains.

From the opening tip it was evident that the Gophers could score on the inside whenever they wanted, and that SDSU could score whenever they wanted against the Gopher press. Tubby Smith may have been trying to blow them out of the gym from the opening tip, but as has occasionally been the case this season, a disciplined team can score rather easily by splitting the press up the middle or via long outlet passes. The Jackrabbits did both. Unfortunately, the Gophers kept pressing, and the results remained the same. If they had played more straight up man to man, there would have been fewer easy points and hopefully better rebounding. Instead Garret Callahan, an SDSU guard, ran wild besting his season high point total by 9 and finishing with 28. When the press was working it was adequate, and the half court defense did eventually shut down SDSU, but for most of the game, the wrong defense was played at the wrong time.

The Gophers were bound to have a game like this, and considering finals are about to start and the next game isn’t for a week and a half, the timing shouldn’t be too surprising. It is ok for fans to be overconfident and to look past opponents, but as the Gophers learned (almost the hard way), you can’t look past anyone. The season is still young and the Gophers still have a lot to learn and unlearn, but a win is a win, and this is a win that would not have happened last year.

And to all you rabid Jackrabbit fans, the Gophers played their worst game of the season, SDSU played its best game of the season, and the Gophers still won.

Highlights from the Big Ten Network

Who did what:

  • Dan Coleman dunked with authority (who knew?) a couple of times, was aggressive on the offensive end, and played another great game. He continues to take the ball to the basket and avoid fading jump shots, which only improves his shooting percentage (10-14 last night).
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala had another typical JAS game, five points including a three and lots of zeros in the box score. Tubby did play JAS and Blake Hoffarber together last night, which we may see more of if opponents need a zone to stop Tollackson and Coleman.
  • Spencer Tollackson had 14 points on 4-5 shooting and 6-7 from the free throw line. With a performance like that, he needs the ball more. The Gophers will need to do a better job noticing obvious mismatches, assuming there will be such a thing in a few weeks.
  • Lawrence Westbrook made the only shot he took, and has become something of an enigma. He gets his minutes, but for whatever reason he can’t seem to impact the game. Tubby might not know what to do with the undersized shooting guard.
  • Lawrence McKenzie appears to still be struggling with what can now be described as a nagging groin injury. He appeared to be limping as he left the game late in the second half. This may account for his poor shooting, or may not be shooting enough to get warmed up. He was only 2-6 7 points, but had an impressive 6 assists with only 1 turnover.
  • Jonathan Williams can’t make layups.
  • Blake Hoffarber continues to shoot confidently, forcing the opposing defense to shy away from double teaming the Gopher big men. While last night was nothing compared to Saturday’s explosion, his 9 points and 6 assists were more than adequate. Its hard to believe this is the same kid that looked so lost the first few games of the season.
  • Kevin Peyton made an impressive lay up and was fouled after a steal. He of course missed the free throw and didn’t do anything else.
  • Al Nolen was the only Gopher who could slow down Callahan. Like he did against Iowa State, he sealed the win with clutch free throw shooting. Will he have any “freshman moments”?
  • Damian Johnson has gone from everything but offense to everything and a bit of offense. His points still come from his athleticism, but for a player who looked to be lost in the Dan Monson wasteland, 3-5 shooting, 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks have become the norm.
  • The Barnyard stepped up in a big way. Their end of The Barn was more full than it has been all year, and were especially loud during the last few minutes of the game. They also achieved a minor miracle by getting the rest of the arena to not only realize that a basketball game was taking place, but to actually stand up and make some noise.
  • The non-barnyard hasn’t realized that the Gophers are worth cheering. For the first time in the hundreds of games that I have watched, the student section had to compel the non-students to make stand up and cheer when the game was on the line. Did all the older fans that I remember from when I was a kid get rid of their tickets, or did they get too old?