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After what could have been a confidence crippling, season opening loss to Michigan State (much like last year’s home loss to Indiana), an intense and determined Gopher basketball team led #23 Ohio State by as much as 18 late in the second half on their way to a 68-59 win.

Last year, an early conference season home loss seemed to ruin the teams confidence most of the year, especially in big games. It wasn’t until the Big Ten home finale against the Buckeyes that the Gophers played up to their capability, and secured a double digit win. This season Ohio State was just what Minnesota needed. In their last game, an almost embarassing loss to Michigan State, the Gophers were over-matched and unprepared for the physicality that accompanies the conference season, and were either unwilling or unable to make the necessary accommodations to compete with the Big Ten’s elite. In beating Ohio State, there was no shortage of intensity and adjustments, all of which were beneficial.

In a fast paced first ten minutes, the Gophers and Buckeyes took advantage of each other’s lax defenses. Ohio State played their traditional zone, but were unable to rotate fast enough to match Minnesota’s superb ball movement, allowing a pair of three pointers by Al Nolen and Lawrence Westbrook along with another Al Nolen jumper. In a major departure from the Michigan State loss, the Gophers made a concerted effort to attack the offensive glass, and it paid off. By the the half way point in the first half, Minnesota had already collected five offensive rebounds resulting in eight second chance points. While the Gophers appeared to have solved their offensive and especially their offensive rebounding woes, there were still considerable difficulties on the defensive end.

Tubby Smith started both Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III in a line-up designed to provide a rebounding and size advantage especially on the offensive  end. However, it is also a line-up susceptible on the defensive end to team with exceptional foot speed or only one true post player. The Buckeyes have both these characteristics. Ralph Sampson III was beaten off the dribble on seven possessions in the first eight minutes of the game by Evan Turner, a 6’7” forward that is much more of slasher than a post player. Thanks to defensive help by Colton Iverson, who recorded a team high four blocks, Turner only translated his speed advantage into four points. A change was needed.

Tubby Smith’s first attempt to alter the course of the game was an unmitigated failure. He brought in  five new players, Travis Busch, Devoe Joseph, Blake Hoffarber, Jonathan Williams, and Jamal Abu- Shamala. All these players have a role to play, but they should never all be on the court at the same time. Jonathan Williams only lasted two and half minutes until he was pulled after a two handed volleyball spike foul after which Colton Iverson entered the game. Even with Iverson in though, Ohio State went on a run that resulted in their largest lead of the day at 22-15 and an offensive rebounding total rivaling Michigan State’s.

With seven minutes left in the half, the Gophers down seven, and sinking fast, Coach Smith went against everything he stands for and switched the Gophers to a 2-3 zone and put in Paul Carter. The defensive switch took care of Ohio State’s offense, they scored only two points (both free throws)  the rest of the half, and Paul Carter took care of the rebounding deficiency. By the time Paul Carter left the court with 2:52 left in the first half, what had been a five point deficit was three point lead. After a Jamal Abu-Shamala lay-up following a half court bounce pass, an Abu-Shamala three and another three by Devron Bostick, with some nifty interior baskets by Iverson and Damian Johnson, the Gophers had ten point lead. This run was especially impressive given that Al Nolen missed it all due to foul trouble, and Devoe Joseph,  once again playing out of position at point guard, led the Gophers out of adversity with timely shooting and exceptional decision making.

Ohio State came out firing in the second half, knocking down three straight three pointers, and cut Minnesota’s led down to three, but Smith wisely stuck to the zone, Ohio State cooled off quickly, and the Gophers responded again to Ohio State’s run. This time it was Damian Johnson, who thanks to two steals and two baskets pushed Minnesota’s lead back out to fourteen. It was all Minnesota from there on out, and I could never hope to do the Gophers justice. They sliced and diced Ohio State’s zone, not settling for outside shots, and finding gaps on the baseline that resulted in highlight reel dunks. When the Gophers did shoot from the outside, they were excellent, hitting a rate of 40% for the game. The Buckeyes did create a few nervous moments in the last seconds of the game, but Minnesota uncharacteristically made 8-9 second half free throws, and Minnesota won their first conference game. Minnesota’s zone and Ohio State’s inability to deal with it proved to be the deciding factor.

For the life of me, I will never understand how a team that practices playing the zone every day could possess a complete understanding of the basic principles necessary to beat a zone. Ohio State settled for bad shots, didn’t attack the zone, and it cost them the game. Ohio State shot only 34.6% from the field and 36% from the three point line with eight assists and 14 turnovers. Also facing a zone, the Gophers shot 42.4% from the floor and 40% from the three point line with 20 assists and 12 turnovers.

Paul Carter’s contribution should also not be overlooked. It is not a coincidence that Minnesota turned the game around when he came into the game. He possesses a loud intensity that few other Gophers possess. He is not afraid to dive on the floor or defend his teammates, including getting in the face of Dallas Lauderdale, who could probably break him in half. Damian Johnson credited Carter’s attitude for the team’s better play. “I was glad that Paul did what he did,” Johnson said. “It showed that we’re not backing down from anyone.”

Tubby Smith seems to have finally figured out a rotation that has his confidence. For most of the game, except the early first half line change, Coach Smith substituted players with similar skills. Even though Devron Bostick is much taller than Lawrence Westbrook, he came in for Westbrook, enabling the Gophers to continue to have a player with an outside shot who can also put the ball on the floor. Iverson and Sampson rarely were on the court at the same time, so the Gophers kept a low post presence without sacrificing on defense. The emergence of Carter gives the Gophers a hustle player with athleticism and leadership. There once was a time when an early dismantling would cripple the Gopher’s confidence. Instead, these Gophers are much more resilient, and shouldn’t be underestimated after one bad game.

Who did what?

  • Damian Johnson also bounced back in a big way after a bad game against Michigan State. He led the Gophers in attacking the zone, both making interior baskets and dishing out four assists. There was also his usual six rebounds, four steals and three blocks. Most importantly, he didn’t force any outside shots. A lot of players will settle for jumpers against a zone. Johnson took a few, but not enough to hurt the team.
  • Colton Iverson only took three shots, not enough for a player making 62% of his field goal attempts, but he made two, scoring four points to go along with three assists and four blocks. He also held his own defensively and didn’t get lost in the zone.
  • Ralph Sampson III took his defensive difficulties in stride, and ended up playing solid game. His outside shots didn’t fall but it confused Ohio State’s zone, and his five rebounds kept Ohio State from getting too many second chances.
  • Al Nolen struggled and never seemed to get going after picking up two early fouls. He had only three assists with two steals to go with seven points.
  • Lawrence Westbrook continues to be the Gophers best clutch free throw shooter, hitting four in the final minutes of the game.  He also played much more in control, hitting for 15 points and two assists with no turnovers.
  • Paul Carter still can’t finish (1-5 field goals) but he has everything else the team needs. Don’t be surprised if he is one of the first subs off the bench the rest of the season.
  • Travis Busch was dreadful again. He played only three minutes, and managed to commit a bad turnover and an even worse quasi-air ball.
  • Devoe Joseph played extensive minutes and had his best game of the Gophers. Other than a bad turnover in the closing minutes when his legs quit on him, he played very well, scoring seven points. Minnesota’s most glaring weakness last season was their lack of a back up ball handler. Half a season later, it has become a strength.
  • Jonathan Williams played only three minutes.
  • Devron Bostick has the rare ability to rebound and make outside shots. Until yesterday, the Gophers had to choose between the two. He had five points and four rebounds.
  • Blake Hoffarber continues to struggle against Ohio State despite plenty of open shots against their zone. Some guys just need to be covered to make their shots. He had three points on 1-4 shooting.
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala missed what could be his one opportunity for a momentum changing dunk. He did make the lay-up though, and played well with five points and no turnovers.