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Thursday’s 76-51 win against Utah Valley came in Minnesota’s third game of the young season, and was also their last true tune-up of the young season. On Thanksgiving night, and two days thereafter, the Gophers begin what could potentially be their most difficult stretch of the season at the 76 Classic in Anaheim California. There is a distinct possibility they could play Butler and West Virginia, two top teams next weekend, and also face UCLA, who will have some degree of a home court advantage. It will be a far cry from the barely Division I teams the Gophers have beaten up on.

Going into the Utah Valley game, the Gophers were hoping to play as flawless as possible. Ideally, the last easy game before a tough stretch will function as a kind of dress rehearsal. The team hopes to use the same line-ups, run the same plays, and execute precisely. Needless to say, despite the 25 point victory Thursday’s game hardly inspired confidence.

The Gophers were without leading scorer Lawrence Westbrook due to food poisoning. His absence from the line-up was obvious, as the Gophers were completely out of sync at the offensive end of the floor for most of the first half. Devoe Joseph filled in and demonstrated plenty of effort, but his shots were not falling, along with the rest of the team. The Gophers shot only 34% in the first half, and only led the Wolverines by eight points, despite taking 14 more shots over the first 14 minutes.

It was another in a string of slow starts. It is great that the Gophers can wear a team down and get better as the game goes on. Against bad teams it almost doesn’t matter how slow the start is because no hole will really be too deep to climb out. The Gophers didn’t have a lead of more than one possession until the 2:24 mark of the second half.

The shooting did gradually improve, mostly on points off of turnovers, and especially because of Rodney William who scored 8 straight points in the middle of the second half. He was one of the few Gophers playing well and within his abilities. Unlike their previous games, these weren’t just good shots that weren’t falling. There were plenty of bad shots too. Damian Johnson has picked up a nasty habit of opening each game with an ill-advised perimeter shot. Devoe Joseph has no problem shooting from anywhere on the floor, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have a problem with his shot selection. Even lay-ups were an adventure, as the Gophers only converted on 60% of what should have been guaranteed made shots.

The defense wasn’t much better. Even if the box score disagrees. Statistics are compulsive liars. They can give you a general picture of the game, except when they don’t. As John Gasaway pointed out, I may been a bit harsh in my immediate reaction Thursday night. The Gophers did hold the Wolverines to only .76 points per possession, which admittedly is very good. The goal of defense, after all, is to keep an opponents from scoring. If the Gophers did what the did on Thursday in every game so far this season they would have the 28th best defense in the country. In reality, this wasn’t so much a stellar defensive performance as it was a game against a team that could not take care of the ball.

Utah Valley committed turnovers on 39% of their possessions. Many of the turnovers weren’t forced, unless the Gophers have a unique ability to force opponents to throw wide-open passes several feet too high. It is almost a shame that Utah Valley couldn’t hold on to the ball, because it obscured what may be their best offensive performance of the season. They regularly beat the Gophers off the dribble, which is more than a little alarming considering the disparity in athleticism between the two teams. Utah Valley also had an exceptional shooting night, making 45% of their shots, the best by any Gopher opponents by a 15% margin.

A quick perusal of the box score may lead to some rebounding concerns too. Remember, don’t believe the box score. While we don’t delve into statistical intricacies too often, tempo-free statics are a very helpful tool to gain a complete picture of the game. KJ at “The Only Colors” was kind enough to put together a guide for numbers-oriented dummies such as myself. One of the main general concepts is that percentages are more meaningful than raw numbers. This is especially true when looking at the rebounding numbers from Thursday night. Even though the Gophers were out-rebounded in terms of raw numbers, it had a lot more to do with their poor shooting than it did with their actual rebounding. The Gophers actually rebounded a greater percentage of both offensive and defensive opportunities than the Wolverines. If both teams had the same same number of missed shots, quite simply, the Gophers would have had better rebounding numbers.

Despite the obvious shortcomings on display on Thursday, it is difficult to be alarmed. The Gophers were playing without their leading scorer, which goes a long way in explaining the offensive mediocrity. Playing a game that is tougher than expected and without a complete roster at this stage in the season should be beneficial in the long run. Butler will be a tough test on Thanksgiving night and should be favored to win. This would not be the best time for the Gophers to experience for the first time this season a game that is not a wire to wire blow-out. It also gave them a great opportunity to play a full game without Westbrook in an almost consequence free environment. Injuries and foul trouble happen, and they may very well happen to Westbrook. If they do, at least the Gophers will have a better idea of how to handle such a situation.

Who did what:

  • Damian Johnson was one of the few Gophers who performed well on offense, and he had a positively stellar game. He sealed off his defender several times and used a nice drop step for an easy dunk. He also tied for the team lead with six rebounds. He has become a power forward by necessity, and he needs to rebound like it.
  • Rodney Williams continues to dazzle with both his high wire dunks and his solid fundamental play. In his first start as a Gopher he scored a career high 17 points, adding to his double digit scoring streak. He also added six rebounds, 4 steals, and two assists. A player with his athleticism and the Damian Johnson type statistics is something every coach dreams of.
  • Ralph Sampson scored 9 points on 3-4 shooting, but only played 19 minutes after picking up 4 bogus fouls. He looked fine when he was out there.
  • Devoe Joseph tried to do too much filling in for Lawrence Westbrook. He forced shots and couldn’t stay in control while going towards the basket. Tubby Smith will have the sophomore guard practicing his lay-ups as he repeatedly forgot to use the backboard. He finished with 8 points on 5-13 shooting.
  • Al Nolen needs to remember that he will always be one of the quickest players on the court and can get to the basket at will. The Utah Valley defenders couldn’t hang with him, and Nolen had a wide-open lane to the hoop. He didn’t always convert, but was fouled often and was able to get 11 points despite his 2-7 shooting. The junior point guard continued to distribute the ball effectively with another 7 assists without a turnover. He now has 21 assists and 2  turnovers for the season and 14 assists and no turnovers over the last two games. Nolen wasn’t alone on Thursday. The Gophers as a team recorded only 5 turnovers while 21 of the teams 27 field goals came off an assists.
  • Colton Iverson had another rough night, and could soon be facing a Blake Hoffarber type sophomore slump.
  • Blake Hoffarber scored six points on 2-6 shooting and 2-5 from behind the three point line. If Hoffarber can continue to make three pointers at a 40% pace it will keep defenses extended and give the interior players room to work.
  • Justin Cobbs doesn’t seem to be gaining Tubby Smith’s confidence, though he looks just fine when he is on the court. He played only 8 minutes and did not score.
  • Paul Carter’s shooting has reverted towards the mean. Again, and as always, he played too fast on the offensive end and made only 3-10 shots. When he took his time, he nailed a three pointer, and made 3-4 free throws. Hopefully he can calm down a bit as his career progresses so he can make a few more shots.
  • Lawrence Westbrook missed the game due to food poisoning. There is no indication that he will miss more games, and he should be back and ready to go on Thursday, which, ironically, is a day that causes plenty of digestion problems.