So much for the 20 game losing streak to Illinois, and so much for anything resembling reasonable expectations for the rest of the year. After a blistering forty minutes of in your face, no gimmicks, straight up defense, the Gophers blew the doors off The Barn and blew out the Fighting Illini, 59-36. Any time a team wins by more than 20 points without cracking 60 points themselves requires a bit of historical context. These things don’t happen.
Any Gopher win against Illinois was going to need context. The Gophers hadn’t beaten the Illini in 3648 days. During that nearly 10 year span, the Illini outscored the Gophers by 253 points, or an average of more than 12 points per game. Five different coaches took part in the streak. It spanned three presidential administrations, an impeachment, three wars, and four new countries. And in 2 hours it was gone, in a blow out. The Illini’s 36 points were their fewest since 1985, and the second fewest given up by the Gophers in the shot clock era. Minnesota’s 23 point victory was their second largest margin of victory. Only their 26 point win over High Point was more lopsided. However, on Thursday the Gophers scored 1.64 times as many points as the Illini, compared to only 1.46 as many points against High Point. This wasn’t even close.
Illinois came into the game considered by many as the best half court offense in the country. Chester Frasier and Demetri McCamey ranked #1 and #4 in the conference assists race. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale were both shooting well over 50% from the field, and the entire team was shooting 48%. If there ever was a team seemingly built to wear the Gophers down in a half court game, this was it.
Then something strange happened. The Gophers didn’t press. They didn’t switch on defense particularly often. They rarely double teamed interior players. They didn’t even play zone for more than a few possession. Instead, they played tight man to man defense, right in the face of every Illinois player. They didn’t have room to breathe, let alone time to get off an uncontested shot, and it was a thing of beauty. That free flowing Illinois offense that was just hitting its groove ground to a halt.
Illinois’s offense had a worse day than their now former governor. They scored only .64 points per possession. Their previous low was .844 points per possession. Minnesota’s best defensive performance by this metric was when they beat D-II Concordia, giving up .687 point per game. The Gophers made Illinois play worse than D-II team that is 8-8.
Minnesota’s defense since the arrival of Tubby Smith is well known and much respected, but the real teeth in that defense until Thursday night was in forcing turnovers by pressing and trapping. The Gophers didn’t trap or press once against the Illini, and only forced nine turnovers. Coach Smith understood that there was no reason to press as long as the shots weren’t falling, and while pressing may have created turnovers, it could have just as easily created fast break opportunities for Illinois, something not worth the risk when they were shooting below 30% for most of the game. It had worked against Louisville, and it worked even better against Illinois.
The team defensive effort was made up of many outstanding individual performance. Demitri McCamey, Illinois’s leading scorer at more than 12 points per game was held to six points on 3-10 shooting by Damian Johnson. Trent Mecham, one year after single-handedly shooting the Gophers out of any meaningful post-season play, was hounded by Blake Hoffarber and only scored four points on 2-7 shooting. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale were both shooting above 50% from the floor, but finished the game 2-11 with four points.
Defense was never really the concern with this team though. It has been Minnesota’s offense that had caused the real concern. A good defense may very well be the best offense, but much of the season it had been Minnesota’s only offense. Baskets came in transition off of turnovers, or off a frantic drive as the shot clock expired. There was still a bit of that last night, but on only about 15% of the teams possessions. In four days they took remarkable strides.
In the second half at Indiana the Gophers finally made a concerted effort to get the ball inside, and they kept it up at home against Illinois. Minnesota went inside on four of their first five possessions. The shots didn’t always fall, particularly in the first half, but it established an interior presence that would prove important. Nearly every Gopher missed a lay-up in the first half. Paul Carter missed an overly ambitious dunk that would have blown the roof off The Barn. However, despite all those misses, the Gophers shot only 32% in the half, Minnesota’s aggressive interior offense got them to the foul line and opened up space for outside shots. Minnesota made eight more free throws than Illinois attempted, though they still only shot 62%. The outside shots didn’t exactly go in either, but they were much more open than in the past, and Blake Hoffarber even knocked down a three, much to the delight of a nervous but hopeful crowd. In the second half Minnesota’s offense was much better, the shots were falling, and the shooting percentage jumped to 48% in the half and a slightly respectable 41% for the game. All the Gophers needed for a win was one non-horrible half. They got it and it was a blow out.
With so many shots bouncing all over the place, it was crucial for the Gophers to hold their own on the boards. They didn’t just do that, they turned in a performance more reminiscent of Michigan State. The Gophers grabbed 39% of potential offensive rebounds, and allowed Illinois to pull in only 20% of those opportunities, on their way to 44-29 rebounding advantage.
It certainly helped that the “Twin Towers” both played at least 20 minutes, and were utilized properly for the first time this season. We have all season them sent out to press and trap, or to fight for long rebounds off of missed three pointers. That only served to run them ragged without much chance to take advantage of their height. Last night in a half court game, their size was dominant. They were regularly in proper position on both ends of the court and were matched up properly on defense. Somewhat surprisingly the Gophers only blocked three shots, but this may have been by design. Minnesota was still able to force plenty of bad shots, but without flying out of position for blocks, the Gophers maintained their rebounding position. Offensive rebounds have the ability to destroy a good defensive effort. Last night, Illinois only got one chance most trips down the court, and those chances weren’t very good.
So now Gophers fans, we return to that age old dilemma, when do we start to believe? If the Gophers play like they did against Illinois, they can be competitive with almost every team in the country. However, we are also only one game removed from a non-loss at Indiana. They have a week to prepare for the toughest road game of the year at Michigan State. A trip to the tournament seems safe. Now the real question is the team’s ceiling. It is hard not to get carried away, but they may be getting it together just in time.
Who did what?
- Damian Johnson scored only five points, but he might have been the games MVP because of his defense. At 6’7”, if he isn’t the Big Ten’s best defender he is definitely the most versatile.
- Ralph Sampson was in double figures again with 10 points and 7 rebounds. Eight of those points came at the free throw line. Most big men never learn how to shoot free throws. Sampson already can, and it will only make him more dominant in the future. A hack-a-Ralph defense is just conceding points.
- Colton Iverson gained some confidence, and has begun to learn that going hard to the basket brings its benefits. Now about those free throws…
- Al Nolen was still occasionally out of control, but quickly regained his composure and was eventually a steadying presence on his young team. His four assists and one turnover and always stellar defense might mark the end of his recent slump.
- Lawrence Westbrook hit two huge three pointers on his was to a game high 15 points. He is the most fearless player the Gophers have had in years.
- Paul Carter continues his obnoxious rebounding pace. On Thursday it was five in ten minutes.
- Travis Busch is the new Kevin Payton.
- Devoe Joseph was steady again. The Gophers don’t need anything more from him this year.
- Devron Bostick left his shot in Wisconsin.
- Blake Hoffarbar’s three was an early game changer. He has been hesitating to shoot, which could throw him off, or ensure that his only shots are makeable. The verdict is still out.
- Jamal Abu-Shamala was the first sub off the bench, and was steady as well. He has a knack for finding the right spot to score, even in slow motion.