The Gophers now know who they are and where they are, and now they can learn and grow. This weekend's 76 Classic didn't turn out the way most people thought or hoped, especially after the win against Butler that is growing less impressive by the day (Butler barely beat UCLA and lost a nail-biter to Clemson). It is never good to lose two games in three days, but if the Gophers were going to lose a couple games in the non-conference season, this was the way to do it.
Minnesota played a good game on Thanksgiving, and beat an at the time top ten team. Butler will drop in the rankings, but they will be back in the top 25 by the middle of their conference season. The Gophers played one of their worst games of the Tubby Smith era against Portland, at least offensively, and were literally within inches of sending the game to overtime. They played alright against Texas A&M, losing by one, and would have won with better execution. This team has a ways to go, but they certainly didn't dig their own grave this weekend. Even with their losses, they managed to outscore their opponents on the weekend.
The one point loss to Texas A&M was more frustrating than it was bad. The Gophers were without starters Lawrence Westbrook and Al Nolen for what Tubby Smith is calling attitude problems until half time. Without their starting backcourt, the team found themselves down nine at the half. They came roaring back in the second half, and were within one possession 13 times but never secured a tie, let alone a lead. The Gophers did everything they could to get close, but couldn't execute when they needed it most. On Friday it was a long contested three point shot that came up just short, when there was time for a better shot and players in a better position to score. Tonight Paul Carter got caught in mid-air driving towards the basket and had his double clutch pull-up blocked. The wrong players are getting the ball in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Close games are won and lost at the free throw line, and for the second game in a row that is where they lost it. Paul Carter had an opportunity to tie the game in the closing seconds, but made only one of two free throws. As a team they shot only 67%, 18-27. They were just as inconsistent from the field, shooting 38.7% from the field and 33% from behind the three point line.
The game was really lost in the first half with Nolen and Westbrook out. Texas A&M went on a 14-0 run halfway through the half on three straight three pointers and the Gophers could never recover. Nolen and Westbrook should know by now that Tubby Smith does not mess around, especially with the off-court issues that have plagued the Gophers in the early season. This loss is squarely on them.
The good news is that it is a very long season and there is plenty of basketball left to be played. The Gophers know what they need to work on and will now have some practice bouncing back from a pair of tough games. Growing pains will occur every season, and it is better that they happen early. A year ago the Gophers reeled off an impressively long list of wins over less than impressive competition (except Louisville of course). However, they seemed to get worse as the season went on. When the Big Ten season heated up, the Gophers wilted and backed into the NCAA tournament. That happened because they weren't prepared by tough early season competition. A muscle does not grow without resistance, and neither did the Gophers last year.
Early season losses are frustrating, but the improvement that they will lead to as the season goes on will be worth it.
Who did what:
- Colton Iverson, along with the Butler win, are the two big positives from this weekend. The sophomore center had another double-double at Texas A&M. He would have had a career high if he could finish around the basket. He made only 4-10 lay-ups. If one more of those goes in, the Gophers win.
- Damian Johnson didn't get enough opportunities on the offensive end. He attempted only 5 field goals, and made three. The senior captain needs to find a way to get involved in the offense, especially with the game on the line. He attempted only two shots in the last 16 minutes of the game, and finished with 12 points and 3 rebounds. He was also shut out in the defensive categories and picked up 4 fouls. He will be eagerly awaiting the return of Big Ten officiating.
- Devoe Joseph did a better job of letting the game come to him, and still couldn't manage to shoot 50% from the field. He made only one of five jumpers, missing every shot from the right side.
- Blake Hoffarber had 4 rebounds and 3 assists, but he is out there to shoot. The Gophers have other players that can pull down rebounds, and they should have other players to get the ball inside. Until someone steps up, Hoffarber will keep playing regardless of whether his shot falls.
- Ralph Sampson III looked good during his relatively short 21 minute day, scoring 7 points on 3-5 shooting. Like a lot of Gophers, he found himself in foul trouble, unable to adapt to the Pac 10 officiating.
- Al Nolen scored 6 points in 15 second half minutes. Hopefully he learned the lesson Tubby Smith taught.
- Lawrence Westbrook never got into the flow of the game. After finally getting to play, he was promptly intentionally fouled and had his bell wrung. He scored only 4 points.
- Justin Cobbs looked great while he was out there, but he is only the third string point guard. He made one of his two shots for two points.
- Rodney Williams quickly lost his starting spot, and is in danger of losing a spot in the rotation. He didn't attempt a shot during his six minutes of action.