If the Gophers don’t make the NCAA tournament, don’t blame the non-conference schedule. Minnesota passed their big non-conference test on Saturday afternoon in Glendale Arizona by beating the #9 team in the country, and a pre-season final four candidate 70-64 for their first top ten win since Joel Prysbilla led the Gophers to a victory over Indiana in 2000.

Beating a highly ranked team on a neutral  court would have been impressive enough, but how the Gophers beat the Cardinals was even more impressive. The Gophers simply played their game. There were no gimmicks. There were no freakish occurrences. No one got hot and scored 50 points. In fact, this was a Gopher team that anyone who has watched even a few games so far this season would recognise. We just haven’t noticed how good they are.

Minnesota’s non-conference schedule prior to Saturday’s game was nothing impressive or daunting. By playing only one school with any sort of basketball credibility, the Gophers were undefeated and untested. They beat the schools they were supposed to beat, and in very underwhelming fashion. Saturday was the exact opposite.

The Gophers just made Louisville look bad. The Gophers trailed for on 57 seconds the entire game, and were only tied with Louisville for 1:33, with the last tie at 11-11 with just over13 minutes left in the game. That’s right, the Gophers led Louisville for more than 37 minutes on Saturday.

The Gophers won not by doing anything spectacular, but by not allowing Louisville to do anything at all. Louisville came into the game with one the best defense in the country, especially in the half court. There defense was impressive, and they held the Gophers to only 32% shooting inside the three point line, but the Gophers still found ways to score. Minnesota’s defense, as it always does, led to several fast break points and 16 points off turnovers, but other than that, the Gophers struggled mightily to score on the inside. Realizing this, Tubby Smith spread the court for Al Nolen, and the sophomore point guard made the most of the opportunity. Going almost exclusively to his left, even though he is right handed, Al Nolen consistently beat his defender off the dribble to get to the free throw line. At the line, he made 13-17, helping the Gophers shoot 73%, still not great, but much better than they have been shooting lately.

The other offensive heroes for the Gophers are also home grown. Travis Busch, who has more than settled into his role as a scrapper, scored a career high high 13 points on mid-range jumpers, lay-ups on crisp cuts, plenty of free throws, and even a three pointer. Blake Hoffarber scored 12 from behind the three point line with three free-throws, and showed he that he might have the quickest release in the country.

Louisville’s press was also supposed to give the Gophers all sorts of problems, and while there were a few shaky stretches, Minnesota handled it admirably. The Gophers had 16 turnovers, near their season average, but only let Louisville score 11 points off those turnovers. Blake Hoffarber deserves much of the credit for making sure the Gophers did not beat themselves. Al Nolen was often prevented from taking the ball up the court, leaving most of the ball handling duties in the back court to Hoffarber. Against one of the better pressing teams in the country, the sophomore shooting guard committed only one turnover, and perhaps more importantly, enabled Nolen to conserve his energy for running the offense and playing defense.

The Gophers played well on offense and defense, but as is so often the case, poor rebounding can undo a lot of good. The Gophers were out-rebounded on Saturday, but only by three. Louisville dominated with their defensive rebounding, but the Gophers more than held their own, and only allowed six second chance points.

Yes, the Cardinals had just played Mississippi on Thursday night and then had to travel half way across the country to play the Gophers less than 48 hours later. Fatigue was probably a factor. But Louisville also has one of the best coaches in all of college basketball, and at least three sure-fire NBA lottery picks, whenever they decide to leave school. The Gophers had a ten day lay-off, having not played since December 10th. Certainly this could have contributed to rusty play, had it occured, as much as fatigue. Regardless of all the pre-determined excuses, the #9 team in the country should be able to beat the average unranked team under almost any circumstances. The Gophers are not average, and soon won’t be unranked.

Minnesota played their best all-around game of the season on Saturday, and did so in very average fashion. We have seen more impressive stretches from this team this season, which only leads me to believe that they are capable of doing much more than beating a top ten team on a neutral court. Last year, Purdue surprised everyone when they vaulted to the top of the Big Ten with a young team and a relatively new coach. Their rise began by beating Louisville, and continued to a 15-3 Big Ten record. It is still a bit of a leap to predict that sort of season, but Purdue showed a year ago what a big confidence boost can do for a young team. The Gophers were supposed to be a year away, but Christmas, as they say, has come early.

Who did what:

  • Damian Johnson was as steady as every, and his break way dunk in the opening minutes sent the signal that the Gophers woudn’t be rusty.
  • Colton Iverson didn’t do much on offense, scoring only four points. He didn’t rebound much either, with only three. But he did completely neutralized Louisville’s front court and holding Samardo Samuels to only seven points.
  • Ralph Sampson played briefly, hit a long jump-shot, and blocked two shots in twelve minutes. He continues to show that even though he isn’t a typical Big Ten center, he won’t be pushed around.
  • Al Nolen is slowly but surely becoming one of the best point guards in the Big Ten. His defense was always there, and his offense has taken that next step. He led the team in scoring with 17 points to go with five assists, and five rebounds.
  • Lawrence Westbrook got in foul trouble and never got out of it all day. The Arizona native had a disappointing home coming scoring only two points with four fouls and four turnovers.
  • Travis Busch can play all he wants, as long as he plays within himself.
  • Devoe Joseph stepped up with Westbrook struggling. His statistics won’t jump out, and his play didn’t either necessarily, but in this case that is a good thing. The freshman played 15 minutes, and had three points and four assists. The Louisvile defense will eat many freshman alive this season. For Joseph, who is really more of a shooting guard, to fill in, fly completely under the radar, and have a solid game against the best defensive team in the country is very impressive.
  • Jonathan Williams certainly makes his presense felt, both good and bad. He provided a great spark in the second half with four points. His three turnovers on the other hand aren’t helping.
  • Devron Bostick played briefly and did not score.
  • Blake Hoffarber is not the same spot shooter he was a year ago. He still won’t beat anyone off the dribble, but he doesn’t need to when he can do just about everything else.
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala and Kevin Payton probably know each other a lot better now.