Maybe the ugliness in Iowa City on Thursday was worth it after all, because the Gophers appear to have gotten all the bad offense out of their system. Led by a pair of junior college transfers, the Gophers did not miss a three pointer and shot 62.5% from the floor including 9-9 three pointers to beat Penn State 79-59.
Devron Bostick and Paul Carter, both junior college players though Carter is only a sophomore, came to Minnesota surrounded by a cloud of high hopes, had seemingly choked on all those expectations. Bostick, the junior college player of the year was supposed to be an unstoppable scorer able to single-handedly push the Gophers to the next level. Paul Carter was supposed to be able to do everything at both ends of the court, a guard trapped in a power forward’s body. Until today, Tubby Smith, and just about everyone else, couldn’t tell what he had. Bostick had trouble picking up Tubby Smith’s defensive schemes, which is a great way to guarantee he’d be sitting very close to his coach on the bench, but not a great way to earn playing time. Paul Carter showed flashes early in the season, but an ankle injury threatened to derail his season like his recovery from hernia surgery cut down his playing time last year. The clouds are gone now for both players leaving nothing but a ray of sunshine and some irrational exuberance as the Gophers head towards a huge game in Madison on Thursday.
In the early going it was the Lawrence Westbrook show. The allegedly 6’0” tall shooting guard scored Minnesota’s first nine points, all on three point plays (the third involved a free throw), but the Gophers couldn’t keep Penn State off the offensive glass, enabling the Nittany Lions to only trail by two points after the second TV time out. The Gophers came out firing right after the time out with three three pointers, the last two by Devron Bostick, and it was as good as over. The Gophers took a ten point lead into half team after a slashing buzzer beating dunk by Paul Carter. The lead eventually grew to as many as 22 points in the second half, and it wasn’t even that close.
The Gophers were making crisp passes, setting solid screens, and only taking smart shots. When they play like this, they can beat even the elite of the Big Ten, and Penn State has a long way to go until they reach that level. Minnesota’s performance was especially encouraging considering Penn State’s personnel. The Gophers have struggled mightily against smaller teams. Though they enjoyed a height advantage at every position when they played Iowa and South Dakota State, they weren’t able to take advantage of it because they were unable to consistently get the ball inside while the perimeter players were unable to lose their man away from the ball. The obvious solution to these problems is to set screens, but Minnesota had up until now shied away from contact. That was not the case today as the Gophers delivered a scrappy performance setting solid screens and moving away from the ball, which opened up both the inside and the outside. Today’s shooting performance was not the result of luck or even particularly excellent shooting, it was all about shot selection.
It may just be selective memory, but I don’t remember the Gophers taking a bad shot. There were some bad misses to be sure. Ralph Sampson nearly broke the back board with a fifteen footer and Al Nolen shot a mid range jumper that hit nothing but air, but it would be hard to argue that those shots shouldn’t have been taken. The three pointers were all wide open and in rhythm. The two pointers were in transition and attacking the basket. Minnesota’s shot selection led to some startling statistics. They averaged 1.3 points per possession, by far their best of the season. Their 9-9 three point shooting set a school record. There nine three pointers were four more than they made at Iowa on 13 fewer attempts. With so many made baskets by the Gophers, the Nittany Lions only pulled down 14 defensive rebounds compared to 23 for Minnesota. You can’t rebound a shot that doesn’t miss.
While the offensive explosion is the obvious story, the Gophers turned in another solid defensive game too. Penn State’s big three of Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley, and Stanley Pringle were never able to get on track. Cornley and Battle both scored in double figures, but on 17 and 11 shots respectively. Stanley Pringle was hounded all day by a host of Gophers and scored only 7 points on 2-8 shooting. Cornley had 10 points and 6 rebounds, but also had five turnovers. The Gophers once again employed several defensive strategies, and whether they were pressing the length of the court, trapping in the half court, playing straight up man to man, or packing in a 2-3 zone, Penn State could not figure out what do, and shot only 37% from the floor.
Depth was the story though. With the emergence of Carter and Bostick, Minnesota adds two more explosive scorers to an already deep bench. The Gopher reserves shot 18-22 from the floor and scored 47 points. Penn State’s starters combined for 44 points. Minnesota was one missing link away from jumping to the top tier of the Big Ten. Today they found two links, and on Thursday in Madison have a chance to make that jump.
Who did what?
- Damian Johson continues to struggle against smaller teams. He didn’t post up, and didn’t get many shots. He was 2-3 from the floor for four points. He should have had six points, but after finding himself wide open at the elbow with a lane to the basket, he forgot to dribble as he went up for the dunk. It was one of his three turnovers.
- Ralph Sampson III struggled from the outside and adjusted by taking the ball hard to the basket. He dunked when in the past he would have shot a floater or a finger roll, and his aggressive play was awarded with free throws, of which he made all four. He also had two assists with no turnovers to go with three blocks including one on a three pointer against the zone defense. Foot speed could be next.
- Colton Iverson couldn’t quite put it all together today, and only scored three points with three rebounds. After two mysterious fouls early in the first half, he was obviously frustrated, and was taken out of the game.
- Lawrence Westbrook cooled down after his hot start to finish with 13 points. Unfortunately he also had three turnovers. His aggressiveness to the point of being out of control makes him the scorer he is, but turnovers are come with the territory.
- Al Nolen scored three points on 1-5 shooting. As is usually the case, his main impact came in directing the offense. He had five assists, no turnovers, and plenty of good decisions that helped the Gophers maintain their momentum.
- Devoe Joseph played great except for two baseball passes that didn’t stand a chance. Both came during big Gopher runs, and most likely wouldn’t have been attempted in a closer game. I hope at least. He more than made up for it with five assists of his own and a beautifully high arching three pointer.
- Jamal Abu-Shamala didn’t miss a shot on the way to seven points.
- Paul Carter continues to be an absolute game changer. It was energy before. Today it was points and rebounds. His thunderous dunk at the end of the first half set the stage for the second half dominance. Carter’s ability to score from anywhere on the court may be unmatched in recent history by a player of his size. He made two three pointers, another long two pointer, a mid-range jumper, and a dunk. He finished with 14 points on 5-6 shooting and four rebounds.
- Travis Busch…you’re not in Iowa anymore.
- Devron Bostick almost didn’t miss a shot. His last shot of the day was half way down and some how popped back out. His first seven shots hit nothing but net, and like Carter they came from everywhere. His career high 19 points came in only 16 minutes. He might play a bit more in Madison.
- Blake Hoffarber still may be struggling from the outside, though we don’t know for sure. Hoffarber took only two shots, one a tip in and the other a lay-up cutting to the basket. His defense and rebounding showed once again that he is much more than a shooter, and makes a huge impact without taking a shot.
- Kevin Payton, for the first time in his career, had a played called for him. He made a sharp back cut, went hard to the basket…and missed the lay up. But he was fouled….but he missed two free throws. Still pulling for Payton.
- Jonathan Williams averaged a rebound per minute during his one minute of playing time.