St. Joe’s is the best opponent to set foot in The Barn this season, by far, but after a close opening few minutes, the Gophers took over, and the only question about the game’s outcome by half time was the final score. Even though Minnesota’s 97-74 victory was their closest home win of the season, it wasn’t really that close.

The Hawks’ strategy was evident early in the game. They were not going to give the Gophers a chance to set up their press, and they weren’t going to let 10 seconds run-off the shot clock. More than a few of the Gopher faithful had nervous moments as they beat the Gophers down the court on the first few possessions. Kalin Lucas wasn’t leading the charge, and the road team wasn’t wearing green, but it looked an awful lot like Michigan State had shown up a month or two early. While the Gophers had a hard time getting back on defense, offensively they were more than happy to participate in a track meet in what turned out to be a blazing fast 78 possession game. In possessions that rarely included more than one pass across the half court line, the Gophers shot 48% from the field on 39 shot attempts to jump to a 15 point half time lead. That lead would have been much larger if the Gophers hadn’t missed at least seven lay-ups by the midway point of the first half. Not all lay-ups are created equal, and few of these misses would have been easy baskets if they were anything other than a lay-up. Minnesota’s back court can do a lot of things, but pulling up for a five foot jumper or making the extra pass to a trailing teammate.

Ralph Sampson seemed determined to end the lay-up drought, and played the most aggressive game of his still short Gopher career. The sophomore forward/center had three emphatic dunks, one on a lob pass from Damian Johnson. He would have had an another dunk on a similar play. Even though the pass failed, Sampson still got just enough to the ball to knock it off the back board for the ungraceful but effective basket.

The emergence of Sampson opened up plenty of space on the perimeter for Minnesota’s outside shooters, and the Gophers took full advantage of their open looks making 9-20 three pointers. Blake Hoffarber led the way with 5 three pointers and a game high 20 points. The Hawks had to decide to guard the perimeter or Sampson. All too often they were caught between the two, leading to easy baskets.

The Gophers shot 58% in the second half, outscored the Hawks by 24 in the paint, and by nine off the bench. They also had 24 assists on their 39 made baskets, with seven different players recording at least two assists. The Hawks may be the best team to play in the The Barn this season, but it was still a dismantling.

The Gophers have only two more non-conference games before the Big Ten season begins. With their three game losing streak earlier in the season, it is even more important for the Gophers to be on top of their game when the competition really picks up. Saturday’s game was a big step in that direction. It was easily their most complete game of the season, only marred by a few ugly minutes toward the end. When the Gophers play focused, team oriented basketball they will be extremely difficult to beat. The question remains if they will be able to play that way against Michigan State and Purdue at home, or against anyone away from home.

Who did what

  • For the third straight game, Blake Hoffarber led the Gophers in scoring. Two years ago it was three point bombs and a miracle clutch shot. Last season it was defense, ball handling, passing, and really everything but the shot. Now Hoffarber has his shot back, has improved the other facets of his game, and has been plugged into the starting line-up. Could he be the team’s best player? We are still two weeks away from finding out for sure. The Big Ten has a way of  revealing  if improvement is just an illusion.
  • Ralph Sampson recorded the first double-double of his career, and did so enthusiastically. Sampson’s lack of facial expressions or passion for the game has never bothered me because it doesn’t seem to affect the way he plays, but it sure was nice to see him obviously having fun out there. and his enthusiasm spread to his teammates.
  • Al Nolen scored only two points on an oh so delicate lay-up. Unlike many games where his scoring is way down, he still played an active role in the offense with five assists and only one turnover.
  • Lawrence Westbrook may play out of control and look for his own shot a little too much, but that doesn’t mean that he is unaware of his teammates. He picked up a nice assist yesterday because of his reputation as a ballhog. As long as he isn’t predictable, Westbrook can do whatever he wants as far as I’m concerned. He scored 14 points on 6-10 shooting.
  • Damian Johnson filled the stat sheet again like no one else in the Big Ten.  He finished with a team leading 5 assists, 9 points, 2 blocks and three steals. He also added 4 rebounds which isn’t bad for only 20 minutes of playing time.  His wrist clearly isn’t bothering him.
  • Paul Carter bounced back from his rough foul-filled game against Morgan State with a seven point four rebound effort. He added three assists and two steals for his most complete game of the season.
  • Justin Cobbs played the most minutes of his career, 16, and scored three points with three assists. Tubby Smith appears to have lengthened his leash on the freshman, keeping him even after a few silly turnovers. Confidence is key in the development of a point guard, and it will be to Cobbs to play through the mistakes with his head up.
  • Devron Bostick is still very rusty, and almost wasn’t fair to throw him out there for the last three minutes with four teammate who have never been on the court at the same time.
  • Rodney Williams didn’t dunk, and the Gophers still won. He did show off his athleticism without throwing one down, skying, wisely landing, and going up strong on a poorly thrown lob pass.
  • Colton Iverson made all three of his free throw attempts and had some rather amazing numbers for 13 minutes of action. He finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. The Twin Towers experiment appears to be over, and Sampson has won the starting spot. Iverson’s minutes will be dependent on how Sampson plays, even with performances like this. The good news is that coming off the bench allows him to come out with more aggression and he doesn’t need to worry as much about fatigue or fouls.