Wednesday night’s Gopher win over the South Dakota State Jackrabbits was dreadful for everyone, and somehow more dreadful than last season’s “victory” over the Jackrabbits. The Gophers were looking back on a string of impressive wins, or looking ahead to finals, Louisville, Christmas break, and maybe summer vacation. Clearly, neither team wanted to be there, and the fans were more than a little tired due to the 8:00 pm start, and tired of playing less than mediocre opponents. At least the Gophers mixed things up a bit.
Excuse me please for going into great detail about the game’s storyline. All you really need to know is that the Gophers jumped out to an 11-0 lead, built the lead to 19 with three minutes left in the first half, got lazy in the second half allowing the Jackrabbits to get within five points half way through the second half, and realizing that they indeed did need exert some effort, went on to put the game away for a 14 point win, 74-60. Despite the sheer boredom experienced by all involved, there was a bit of news, including the first starts by the twin towers, Damian Johnson developing into a legitimate scoring threat, and even some quality minutes from Kevin Payton.
Tubby Smith has been looking for the right opportunity to start both of his quasi-seven-footers all season. Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III played on the same summer league team, but due to injuries, especially Paul Carter’s ankle injury and Jonathan Williams hernia, he was wary of playing the two freshman together. With Jonathan Williams healed to enough to be on the court, thought not to play what anyone would recognize as basketball, Iverson and Sampson III started against the much smaller Jackrabbits. One would think that starting two seven footers against a team whose tallest regular player barely reaches 6’7” would be an advantage, and it was to a point. The two freshman each recorded four blocks. The Jackrabbits just couldn’t score on the inside, and along with Damian Johnson’s five blocks, the Gophers had more blocks than SDSU had two point field goals.
As good as their interior defense was, Sampson and Iverson got torched every where else. The biggest problem was the smallness of South Dakota State. Iverson and Sampson, both very mobile for players their size, are not as mobile as players half a foot shorter than them. The two freshman often looked like there were in slow motion when they were dragged out to the perimeter, which happened much more often in the second half. When they were that far from the basket, they also couldn’t track down rebounds, and the Jackrabbits were more often than not able to get rebounds and loose balls.
The twin towers offense was more out of sync than anything else. Iverson and Sampson III showed they were aware of where each other were on the court, and attempted to pass the ball to each other high over the heads of their defenders, but each also overestimated the height of their team mate, leading to a couple ugly turnovers. The potential is there, but the execution isn’t, yet.
Damian Johnson filled in on offense when his teammates struggled. He scored a career high 21 points, and also shot the ball 15 times, making 10, each of which must also be career highs. As is his custom, he scored from everywhere inside the three point line. His patented runners in the lane were unstoppable, and he also knocked down a few nice mid-range jumpers. I’m not sure what Dan Monson intended for Johnson, especially considering his criminally limited playing time his freshman year, but he has quickly become one of the best slashing forwards in the Big Ten. Now only if he could remember how to shoot free throws.
And finally there is Kevin Payton. He didn’t stuff the stat sheet, but still made quite a bit of the opportunity for more playing time created by Blake Hoffarber’s injury, but he did keep to the Hippocractic Oath, first, he did no harm, and he got in in the first half. I completely understand that he isn’t the best basketball players, but for everything else he does, he deserves to be rewarded with as much playing time as possible, and it was great to see him get a few, even slightly meaningful minutes.
Who did what?
- Jamal Abu-Shamala played a quiet 21 minutes, scoring five points with three assists and two turnovers. He was far from spectacular, but must have earned back some measure of confidence from Tubby Smith to get that much playing time.
- Damian Johnson had a career high with 21 points, blocked five shots, and added 6 rebounds, an assist and a steal. One for four on free throws though, ouch.
- Ralph Sampson was in a double figures again with 10 points, but was only 3-8 from the field. On the plus side, he made all four free throw attempts he took on a night when his team barely cracked 50%
- Colton Iverson struggled in his rematch against just about all of his high school opponents. He had only 4 points and two rebounds, and looked confused when Sampson III was on the court.
- Al Nolen came as close as any Gopher to getting a triple double he had eight points, eight rebounds, and 11 assists. He did have three turnovers, but also forced three turnovers of his own.
- Kevin Payton didn’t do anything to reduce his playing time, and may have even earned a bit more.
- Travis Busch is still Mr. Mid-range. He had six points and three rebounds.
- Devoe Joseph was an adequate fill in when Nolen was out, but was nothing special. He had four points and an always positive zero turnovers.
- Lawrence Westbrook continues to be a big scorer off the bench with 12 points. Tubby Smith has apparently cemented Westbrook into the instant offense role. With the Gophers continuing to have excellent starts, there hasn’t been a need to start the Arizona scoring record holder. When he does come into the game, he is often up against a back-up guard who is out of his league trying to keep up with the Gopher guard.
- Devron Bostick looked good during his eight minutes of playing time, scoring four points with 2 assists. As his confidence builds, so should his playing time. Unfortunately, he may be the biggest victim of a loaded roster.