After three straight losses, the Gophers needed a confidence building spark, and they got it from the most methodical and least exciting player on the team, Blake Hoffarber. The junior guard formerly known as the three point specialist led all players in scoring and rebounding to record the first double double of his career, leading the Gophers to an easy 91-55 win. His 13 points were a season high and his ten rebounds a career high against Division I competition, he had 12 against Concordia-St. Paul in the season opener last year.

Brown was clearly over matched in every aspect of the game yesterday afternoon. This wasn’t the same team that almost upset St. John’s. They might not have beaten the Division III team of the same name in Stearns County. Despite the discrepancy in talent and the lopsided score, this wasn’t an entirely meaningless game.

Minnesota’s 91 points were a season high, and came mostly out of the half court offense. Even in their three early season blow-outs, most of the points seemed to come in transition off of turnovers. Only 11 Gopher points came off the fast break, and with 9 more at the free throw line, 78% of the points came from running the offense. This only happens with excellent shooting, and for one game at least, the Gophers were feeling it from the outside.

The lack of fast break scoring wasn’t an accident. The Gophers showed only token pressure during a few possessions in the first half. They didn’t trap in the corners. They didn’t even push the ball up the court after missed shots. This was a chance to correct the offensive inefficiency in a consequence free environment.

Their shooting was blistering in the early going, as they made their first 5 shots on the way to 21-33 field goals in the first half including 6-11 three pointers. They didn’t shoot nearly as well in the second half, but still shot better than 50% for the game. There were plenty of open shots, but they weren’t any more open than in the three previous games when nothing seemed to go in. Sometimes the shots just decide to go in.

Minnesota’s team play play and chemistry became an issue during their three game losing streak. Al Nolen and Lawrence Westbrook are reported to have gotten into a heating argument over shot selection and ball distribution. The lack of teamwork wasn’t just a locker room issue either. During the losing streak the Gophers recorded 12 assists against Miami, and Texas A&M and only 7 against Portland. The ball movement, and especially movement away from the ball was lacking in those games. On Saturday the Gophers passed the ball much more crisply, and recorded 25 assists. The team, Al Nolen and Lawrence Westbrook especially, took extra time during stoppages to make sure they were on the same page. The first half benching of Nolen and Westbrook may have cost the Gophers a win against Texas A&M, but it also solved for now the leadership issues that could have unraveled the team.

Rebounding was also an area of the game that needed major improvement. The Gophers were not as dominant as they should have been, but Blake Hoffarber’s performance was a pleasant surprise. Minnesota’s defense thrives on turnovers. Attempted steals and blocked shots often take interior players away from prime rebounding position (especially Damian Johnson) which allows Gopher opponents too many offensive rebounds and second chance points. If Saturday is any indication, Tubby Smith’s solution is to send perimeter players to the defensive glass, hard. Hoffarber had his 10 rebounds. Devoe Joseph added six more. Justin Cobbs and Lawrence Westbrook had two each. In total, guards accounted for 20 of Minnesota’s 42 rebounds.

This was not a panacea. The Gophers shot only 69% from the free throw line, and the 44% second half shooting isn’t much better than the shooting during the losing streak, but it was a start, and it will build some confidence. The Gophers were able to remind themselves that they can make shots and can score in the half court. Now they just need to keep getting better.

Who did what

  • Damian Johnson scored 12 points on 6-9 shooting, almost exclusively attacking the basket. Johnson was the go to guy with the shot clock running out, and made several floaters in these situations. All too often his offensive skills are overshadowed by his stellar defensive, even in the mind of his teammates. That may finally be changing. Expect to see the ball in Johnson’s in hands in important possessions from here on out.
  • Ralph Sampson III was much more aggressive on both ends of the court, though it was to a fault on defense. His over-exuberance led to a few embarrassing defensive lapses on pump fakes, and on one play he simply ran right through his man, but I’d rather see this than him shying away. On offense, he finally found his mid-range jumper knocking down at least three shots from around 15 feet. Unfortunately, his best play of the day, a twirling  ball fake drop step in which he completely lost his man, resulted in a missed dunk.
  • Al Nolen was an offensive threat and made 2-4 three pointers and both of his two point attempts. He is becoming enough of an offensive threat lately for defenses to pay attention to him, which should take some pressure off the rest of the team.
  • Lawrence Westbrook  had a non-descriptive 12 points. Nothing he did really stuck out, and he took his shots in the flow of the offense and didn’t really force anything. This is a positive development.
  • Blake Hoffarber started the game, and his big game should lead to several more starts . In his freshman year we saw his shooting. Last year we saw everything but the shooting. This year all the pieces are coming together.
  • Paul Carter had another good shooting, no turnover game. He lost his spot in the starting line-up and has struggled offensively at times, but he keeps plugging away. His performance Saturday brought his shooting up to 50% from the field, a huge improvement from 36% last year.
  • Justin Cobbs continues to play solid basketball. He had three points and an assist in 14 minutes. He was expected to push Al Nolen this year, and he has, but this has just made Nolen better.
  • Devoe Joseph attacked the basket more than he ever has, and got to the free throw line eight times. He still took a few shots without his feet underneath him, but his aggressiveness was good to see. He finished with 11 points and six assists in 16 minutes.
  • Devron Bostick is back, but has some rust to shake off. He air-balled his first shot attempt, and didn’t make his other three attempts either.
  • Rodney Williams needed a confidence boost more than any other Gopher, and should be feeling much better after his 9 point, 4-5 shooting day. The Gophers continue to be undefeated in every game that Williams has dunked. Make of that what you will.
  • Colton Iverson made both of his free throw attempts and didn’t do much else.