Led by Damian Johnson and a nearly-dominating performance by Ralph Sampson III, the Gophers held off a feisty Indiana squad playing its best game of the year to win 67-63. The Gophers didn’t blow out Indiana, but Minnesota’s willingness establish an offensive identity and simultaneously develop an inside presence should be heartening. They are still baby steps, but the Gophers are heading in the right direction.

Minnesota appeared to be taking massive strides in the wrong direction during the first half of Sunday’s game. It wasn’t so much that Minnesota only led by one point at half time, or that they shot only 42.1% in the first half (it is a whole lot better than against Purdue), it was where those shots came from. Tubby Smith promised changes, and there just weren’t any during the first 20 minutes.  Ten of Minnesota’s 26 first half shots were from the three point line. Minnesota’s “Twin Towers” only took three, all by Ralph Sampson, and two of those were outside the lane. Indiana couldn’t establish much of an inside presence, but they made 6-9 three pointers, including a half-court shot by would be Gopher Verdell Jones at the buzzer. Minnesota was up only one at the half, and the Hoosiers were starting to think they played for Gene Hackman sometime in the 1950’s.

The Gophers came out flying and aggressive after half time. Lawrence Westbrook started it off with driving floater and was fouled for a three point play. Jamal Abu-Shamala, who played by far his best game of the season hit a jumper, only to be followed by a steal and a dunk by Al Nolen to push Minnesota’s lead to six.  Minnesota’s strategy had clearly and mercifully changed.

In the half court, especially, the Gophers were able to consistently get the ball into the post. Ralph Sampson made all five of his shot attempts in the second half, and not coincidentally were all dunks and layups. Damian Johnson also consistently posted up. Though he is generally more of a slasher and is more comfortable facing the basket, his ability to post up put him in a much better position to attack the basket.  Indiana’s front court was not able to handle Johnson’s quickness or Sampson’s length.

Unfortunately the Gophers exchanged their offensive success for defense woes. Indiana shot 50% in the second, and only commited six second half turnovers, which allowed them to have a shot to win at the end of the game. Minnesota rarely pressured the Hoosiers. It may be been the case that Tubby Smith wanted his team to learn how to win in a half court game, and Gophers did get the win after all. However, on the road in the Big Ten, even against an inferior team, is neither the time nor the place to teach this sort of lesson. If the Gophers were up comfortably, by all means let Indiana bring the ball up the court, but not in a one possession game. Minnesota obviously needs to learn to win without simply using superior speed and athletic ability, but if Minnesota had lost to one of the worst team’s in Big Ten history, they would have been in very real danger of showing off these skills in the NIT. Either Tubby Smith has a lot more confidence in his team than I do, or sees this as more of a rebuilding year despite Minnesota’s now 17-3 record.

Minnesota has figured out how to play inside basketball, but the inside-out basketball that will give Minnesota’s outside open looks has not yet materialized. They shot only 25% (4-16) from behind the three point line, which will need to improve sooner than later. The shots were there, but they just didn’t fall. Even without outside shooting, Minnesota’s inside scoring was enough to create plenty of openings for Al Nolen to drive to the basket and hit slashers coming to the basket. The possibilities are endless for this offense with Sampson producing on the inside. Now the Gophers just need to put the pieces together.

Who did what?

  • Damian Johnson, for one the first times of his career, became the focal point on offense. He only took one three point shot indicating he wasn’t drifting to the outside on offense. He also excelled at the high post, hitting Ralph Sampson III for a gorgeous alley-oop.  Back to his stat stuffing way, Johnson had 18 points, 6 rebounds, two blocks, two steals, and was an encouraging 4-5 from the free throw line.
  • Colton Iverson played only nine minutes, committing two fouls with a turnover. The “Twin Towers” line-up hasn’t been successful, so there were going to be less available minutes for one of the freshmen. However, Colton Iverson seems more suited to be a back up center than Paul Carter, who took most of those minutes in the second half. There may have to be a “what’s the deal with Colton” post in the near future.
  • Ralph Sampson did it all. His 13 points were great, and his 6 blocks were better. Lost among the successful baby-hooks and the clankers from then feet is Sampson’s defensive emergence. He held Indiana’s Tom Pritchard, the conference leader in scoring, to 10 points and 5 rebounds. He had been averaging 12 and 7.
  • Al Nolen finally figured out to make his drives to the basket a success. After consistently committing more turnovers than assists since the Big Ten season started, he had 6 assists and only one turnover. He played under much more control and also kept his emotions under control, looking like he was having fun again.
  • Lawrence Westbrook had another quiet 12 points and two more game saving free throws. Unfortunately, the junior guard appears to have completely given up on defense. He is one of the team toughest and quickest players, and would be a lock down defender if he cared.
  • Paul Carter had six rebounds in only ten minutes. His minutes appear to be another casulty of a shortened rotation.
  • Travis Busch missed a deep two from the corner during his four minutes on the court.
  • Devoe Joseph had three points in a non-descript 12 minutes. Non-descript is nothing to complain about for a freshman point guard on the road.
  • Devron Bostick played less than a minute.
  • Blake Hoffarber hit a three, but also missed three free throws and had three turnovers. He gets threes in that box score no matter what.
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala, as he always seems to do, played a great game against a non-athletic team. He scored ten points, mainly near the basket