If the Gophers keep this up, they should be this year’s Purdue. Powered by an aggressive Ralph Sampson III, Minnesota overcame their now traditional second hand swoon to bury the Bison 90-76. Sampson scored all 10 of his points in the second half, many in impressive fashion to help the Gophers maintain an early lead.

Minnesota jumped out to an early lead, thanks to Jamal Abu-Shamala must have thought he was playing Northwestern. Whether he was driving to the basket with authority (no dunks, he still is Jamal, hitting open jumpers, still his bread an butter, or knocking down pull ups in the lane, Abu-Shamala continued to display increased confidence that should keep in high in the rotation even if he doesn’t keep his starting spot once the conference season starts and the injury bug slows. The senior Gopher captain scored 9 of his 20 points in a 14-1 run to start the game. Even though the Bison played competitively for the entire afternoon, the game was essentially over by the first TV time out. When it did look in doubt, as the Bison closed within 10 in the second half, Sampson put the game away. The highly touted freshman scored from everywhere, with low post moves that betrayed his lineage, an amazing put back where he could hardly see the basket, and a high arching 15 foot bank shot that was undefendable. The diversity of his offensive repertoire will be the envy of many other Big Ten centers.

Sampson and Abu-Shamala weren’t the only Gophers who came ready to play as the Gophers played their third consecutive best game of the season. In fact, the basket must have looked as big as a hula hoop to the entire team. The Gophers shot 58% in the first half, and out did themselves in the second half shooting 65%. These were Minnesota’s best and third-best shooting halves of the season. Minnesota’s accuracy wasn’t just limited to the interior either, as they made 8-13 three pointers and shot a respectable 78% from the free throw line.

Defensively, Saturday’s win was a mixed bag. The turnover total was up, as the Bison had 15 turnovers, including 9 steal and 8 blocks for the Gophers, but NDSU still had plenty of open shots, and made many of them.  Mike Nelson was able to score 21 points on 5-10 three pointers, as the Gophers spent most of their time concentrating on Been Woodside. When the Gophers face better teams, with more scoring threats, the Gophers will not be able to get away with 20 points from a tertiary at best scorer.

The Gophers needed to play well to beat North Dakota State, a team known for knocking off Big Ten teams who has had their eye on a win at Williams Arena since they moved to Divsion 1 a few years ago. North Dakota State has 10 players from Minnesota, and more than a few feel jilted that they were passed over by the Gophers. Among those is Senior guard Ben Woodside, who has more than a passing resemblance to Drew Neitzl. Woodside, who was the nation’s leading scorer for much of last season, came into the game with gaudy three point statistics and was his team’s leading scorer. On Saturday he had what for him was a below average game, but it is hard to complain about 16 points including a three pointer from around 35 feet out and 7 assists. The prolific scorer never got his win at The Barn, but he definitely showed that he should not have been passed over in favor of Rico Tucker.

Rebounding was also a mixed bag. Like most Gopher opponents this year, the Bison got more than their fare share of offensive rebounds. Minnesota’s aggressive defense is great, but it continues to come at the expense of rebounding positioning. This should be obvious by now, but we can get way with this now. When Minnesota faces an opponent with size comparable to ours, these offensive rebounds could cost us the game. The Gopher guards continue their prolific rebounding, and Al Nolen once again led the team with 7. Team rebounding is great, and guard rebounding may be a sign that the Gopher interior players are boxing out the other big men allowing the guards to swoop in, but it remains to be seen whether this will continue when the Gophers face other quick guards with a rebounding mindset.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, and alarm bells would be going off if the Gophers peaked before December, the Gophers are still on track to sneak into the NCAA tournament. With continued improvement, the Gophers will continue to be ahead of schedule.

Who did what?

  • Jamal Abu-Shamala, if he keeps this up, will be more than just a place-filler when he comes off the bench. He had his best game of the season with 20 points and three rebounds.  I might have been on to something.
  • Damian Johnson keeps doing what needs to be done. Yesterday 11 points on 5-6 shooting with 6 assists, three blocks, and 4 steals. If he could improve on anything, it is his rebounding, which has cratered in recent weeks. He had none yesterday 2 rebounds per game for the season. He may be a little tentative when rebounding as a result of his hand injury.
  • Colton Iverson got a bit of a break yesterday, scoring only 6 points on 2-3 shooting in 17 minutes.
  • Blake Hoffarber was little blah. Nothing great, nothing horrible, but he can’t score 20 every night either. He had 5 points and 4 assists.
  • Al Nolen’d offense is still on vacation, scoring only 5 points including 3-6 from the free throw line. Luckily, he still finds a way to contribute. This time he led the team in rebounding with 7 and 4 assists while helping to force Ben Woodside into 5 turnovers.
  • Travis Busch hit a nice open jumper and finished with 4 points. He can be a valuable role player, as long as he doesn’t try to do more than fill his role.
  • Ralph Sampson did it all, and he did it all while only committing one turnover and one foul. Fouls will be his worst enemy, and the longer he stays on the court the better.
  • Devron Bostick was solid, albeit in limited action with 5 points and 2 rebounds. The statistics don’t show how much more comfortable he looks. He no longer cringes the second the ball leaves his hand.
  • Lawrence Westbrook is back in a big way, scoring 17 off the bench. With Abu-Shamala’s strong start to the season, Tubby Smith is in the enviable position of using Westbrook in an instant offense role. Could Westbrook be the next Townsend Orr?
  • Devoe Joseph hit another three, and finished with 5 points.
  • Kevin Payton averaged a rebound a minute, though he only played 1 minute.
  • Spencer Tollackson, moon lighting as an announcer for the Big Ten Network, criticized Ralph Sampson III’s athleticism. Um, yeah.