Al Nolen missed Sunday afternoon’s game against Michigan State, and the Gophers missed his steady ball handling, defense, and ability to distribute the ball particularly in the half court offense, as Minnesota lost 78-73.

At first glance, the final score could indicate that Sunday was another, albeit frustrating, sign that the Gophers barely missed another opportunity to knock off one of the Big Ten’s elite teams. However, despite the close margin on the scoreboard, the game was never in doubt. If I hadn’t seen the scoreboard, I would have guessed that we lost by 20 as I left the game. It was that bad.

Al Nolen’s bruised thigh bruised the NCAA tournament chances of the Gophers, and showed that among the many reasons for Minnesota’s improvement this year, he may be the most important. The pressure defense and organizaed offense were long gone, and sloppy and Lawrence “look at me” McKenzie were on full display.

Much of the ball handling duties were given to Lawrence Westbrook, who gave Gopher fans Rico Tucker flashbacks as he made errant passes and was out of control on fast breaks. He committed 5 first half turnovers. Though he didn’t commit any in the second half, the damage was already done. More importantly, with Westbrook running the half court offense, the Gophers were rarely able to get a shot off with more than 5 seconds on the shot clock. Lawrence McKenzie was invisible in the first half, but exploded in garbage time to finish the game with 20 points. His injured hand must not hurt when his scoring doesn’t matter. A five point loss looks a lot better on paper than a true blow out, which could prove to be important if the Gophers are able to string a few impressive wins together, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Gophers looked bad on Sunday.

If the two other Gopher seniors had shown up, we would all be heralding McKenzie’s amazing second half performance. Dan Coleman has once again abandoned attacking the basket. As has been widely reported, he will still take a few steps toward the basket, but the moment a defender approaches, he will fade far, far away. A new and even more troubling occurrence on Sunday was Coleman’s reliance on Jordan-esque turn around jumpers. Needless to say, Michael Jordan was bit more successful. But I would rather have Coleman shooting without looking at the basket than Spencer Tollackson shooting three pointers. He attempted two more on Sunday, neither of which were close.

Those shots marked a disappointing and immature day by Tollackson. In addition to poor shot selection, Spencer pumped his fist enthusiastically in the air after making a free throw. Yes, he did make a free throw, and yes, the crowd did explode, but Tollackson is sorely mistaken if he thought the crowd was genuinely excited he made a free throw. There is a reason they are called “free”. When he was standing behind either the free throw or three point line, Spencer still struggled, finishing with 7 points and 6 rebounds on 3-9 shooting. He fouled out with two and half minutes left on the final of series of dumb fouls that were the product of frustration and immaturity.

At least the Gophers watched game film and made adjustments. Two weeks ago when the Gophers lost to the Spartans for the first time, Raymar Morgan dominated with 31 points while Drew Neitzel stayed in a shooting slump. Michigan State’s big men Drew Naymick and Goran Suton played excellent but foul plagued defense. The defense was still there, MSU’s superior talent was able to overcome just about everything the Gophers threw at them. Raymar Morgan played what may have been his worst game of the season, scoring only 9 points, but Drew Neitzel shot his way out his slump in a big way. It wasn’t just that he scored 19 points and at one point made 5-6 three pointers in the second half, it was the timing. Seemingly every time Minnesota was within one point or one possession, Neitzel would find himself open on the left wing for a wide open three pointer, killing any momentum the Gophers had developed and taking the crowd out of the game. After the first two, the crowd still had hope, but after each of the next three, it became obvious to everyone in attendance that they would be going home disappointed. Even when he missed, Goran Suton battled for a rebound and inevitably made a lay up.

After all this, the Gophers only lost by 5, and Al Nolen could have made up that difference. Obviously with Nolen in the game, things would have progressed differently, and Michigan State would have adjusted to his presence. But I have a hard time believing that he wouldn’t have gotten a hand in Neitzel’s face or found an open man under the basket. His scoring, assists, and steals easily could have produced a five point swing.

Unfortunately no one knew Nolen was injured. Certain beat reporters once again failed to do their job. The real problem with reporters not doing their job is that it leads to speculation. It was anyone’s guess if Nolen was hurt, had missed practice, had failed a class, or was in some sort of legal trouble. It isn’t fair to players to not reveal, or find out, why they aren’t playing. There aren’t many good reason why a team’s most important player would miss his team’s most important game. It is the beat reporters job to make sure that no undue criticism is leveled at 18 year old kid, especially when his only mistake is getting kneed in the thigh.

Who did what?

  • Damian Johnson played his typical game, scoring 10 and pulling down 6 rebounds.
  • Dan Coleman was dreadful. If his 3-14 shooting wasn’t bad enough, his 3 rebounds were. Mr. Coleman, you are 6’9″ with a huge vertical. Please remember this.
  • Spencer Tollackson…
  • Lawrence Westbrook actually played really well despite the turnovers. He shot 60% from the floor, made 6-7 free throws, and had a career high 12 points.
  • Lawrence McKenzie kept the score close.
  • Kevin Payton didn’t actually play that bad, not enough to warrant more than 9 minutes, but nothing disastrous happened when he was on the floor.
  • Jonathan Williams scored 7, but didn’t get to the free throw line. One would think that that someone his size would get run into accidentally a few times each game. He takes up a lot of space.
  • Blake Hoffarber needs to find a way to get open.
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala may have officially lost his starting spot.
  • Travis Busch played oh so briefly.