JF

Talk about drastic changes, I certainly didn’t expect that to be the headline.

Led by recently under-achieving players and a new starting line-up, Minnesota beat the Wildcats in energetic and high scoring fashion. If only anyone would have been able to see it. The Evanston, Illinois area was pounded by a blizzard throughout the game which apparently interfered with the satellite signal, and  even the few hearty souls who still care about Northwestern basketball generally avoided the snowy and icy mess outside. Don’t believe me?

Like just about everyone else, I was also unable to watch the game. I did however listen to the game, and managed to not throw my radio out the window. Due to the um…lack of descriptiveness from Mike Grimm and Kevin Lynch, this won’t be the most informative game review I have ever written. Though, I can tell you that the Gopher radio announcers spoke often of throat stomping and describing a Northwestern fan they may or may not have been Ray Romano. Very useful when you can’t see what they are talking about.

On to the game, something Mike Grimm and Kevin Lynch should focus on…

Tubby Smith’s changes started on Tuesday in practice. In a typical practice, the majority of time is spent focusing on the opponent, but this time, the majority of the practice consisted of scrimmaging and working on the Gopher’s weaknesses. As Minnesota had demonstrated throughout the season, preventing an opponent from carrying out their game plan will not get you very far if you are not prepared execute your own.

For the first time this season, Tubby Smith instituted major changes in his starting line up. Previously, minor changes were made because of Lawrence McKenzie’s groin injury, and recently Damian Johnson took Jamal Abu-Shamala’s place in the starting line-up. Since the Wisconsin disaster I had been advocating that the Gophers should go small and fast, and to try to run their opponents out of the gym. Instead, Tubby went slow and moderately sized. While I would still like to see small ball, slow ball worked. It should be obvious by now why Tubby Smith is a future hall of fame coach and I write an occasionally read blog.

The new starting line-up consisted of Spencer Tollackson, Damian Johnson, Jamal Abu-Shamala, Lawrence Westbrook, and Blake Hoffarber and point guard. Eager to show that they were ready to make the most of the opportunity, the Gophers came out fast and furious, quickly jumping out to an 8-2 lead led by Blake Hoffarber from long distance and the unstoppable low-post presence of Spencer Tollackson. Northwestern was able to claw back and was within three points with three minutes left in the half, but then the wheels came off.

In the last three minutes of the half the Gophers went on a 12-2 run, led by 8 points in that stretch from Jamal Abu-Shamla to take a 14 point half time lead. Abu-Shamala, as he always seems to do at Northwestern, played his best game of the season. He finished the game with 16 points, 5 rebound, and three assists. It was by far his best game of the season, but doesn’t come close to matching his other dominating performances in Evanston, where he has made 12-16 three pointers in his career.

The hot outside shooting of Abu-Shamala and Hoffarber opened up the middle of Northwestern’s zone for Spencer Tollackson. The nearly always maligned senior center was perfect on the night scoring 19 points (7-7 from the floor and 5-5 from the free throw line). Undoubtedly Tollackson benefited from the unathletic and undersized Northwestern front court, and was probably very close to the basket on all of his field goal attempts, but regardless, he displayed tremendous improvement over his previous efforts.

The individual performances were tremendous, but the team statistics were even more impressive. The Gophers outrebounded 38-17, shot 58% from the field, 52% from the free throw line, and made 76% of their free throws. On Saturday when the Gophers take on Iowa at Williams Arena, they almost certainly will not  put up numbers like this, but for a team needing a confidence boost, a blow-out win on the road, regardless of how bad the opponent is, is a step in the right direction.

Who did what?

  • Dan Coleman was largely on non-factor on both ends of the court. He scored 10 points, one of six Gophers in double figures, and had 8 rebounds. However, he shot poorly and committed four turnovers.
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala made the most of his first substantive playing time in several games. He scored 16 points and forced Northwestern to extend their zone more than they wanted to.
  • Spencer Tollackson was perfect, except he still hasn’t found a way to rebound. He finished with 19 points and three rebounds, despite being the tallest player on the court.
  • Lawrence Westbrook continues to get better and better. He was three rebounds short of a triple-double, and added 12 points and 10 assists with only one turnover.
  • Blake Hoffarber started at point guard. While he is far from a typical point guard, he ensured that the Gophers did not simply stand around on the offensive end, and was consistently able to get the ball to Lawrence Westbrook in a position where Westbrook could make an assist. Hoffarber had 15 points, 4 assists (though he would have many more if they handed them out like in hockey) and no turnovers.
  • Al Nolen as of yet has not climbed over the freshman wall. He played only 10 minutes and 2 turnovers.
  • Despite not starting (has he ever really started playing before halftime?) Lawrence McKenzie scored 16 points on 5-8 shooting.
  • Damian Johnson was in foul trouble most of the night.
  • Travis Busch played briefly.
  • Thanks to not being able to watch the game, there will be no Ryan Saunders update tonight. But I can tell you that Tubby Smith decided to dress like Bob Huggins for a night: mock turtle neck and sport coat. Thank you Kevin Lynch for this important information.