Well, that wasn’t too bad.
Any Gopher fan with any sort of memory dreads heading to the Breslin Center, which has been a house of horrors in recent years for the Gophers including last season’s disaster. The Gophers were run out of they gym that night. Tonight, they probably should have run some more.
Superficially, the goal of defense is to prevent the other team for scoring. For the Gophers, the goal of their trapping/pressing defense is still to prevent points, but more importantly, it is to score points for the Gophers.
After last year, an up and down affair that featured monster dunks, a hyped crowd, and the Gophers being outscored by nearly half a point per possession, it was easy to see why Tubby Smith wanted to slow the game down. It did let the Gophers hang around, and they had a chance to tie or take the lead in the closing minutes of the game, but it also gave up one of Minnesota’s biggest weapons and failed to take care of Michigan’s biggest weakness, turnovers.
Michigan State committed only 9 turnovers, neutralizing Minnesota’s fast break offense. Even though Blake Hoffarber is probably the least athletic player on the court, he thrives, offensively at least, the faster the game goes. He loves to set up on the wing or in the corner to receive an outlet pass or a kick out. Tonight, he took only two three pointers. Lawrence Westbrook is also accustomed to hitting three pointers in transition. Tonight most of his shot attempts came in the half court offense.
Oddly enough, the Gophers stayed in the game because of their rebounding. The Gophers and Spartans are statistically similar teams everywhere except on the glass, where the Spartans are dominant. Tonight Minnesota actually out-rebounded MSU on the offensive boards, something they haven’t done since 2006 when the Spartans were a decidedly pedestrian 16-15 on the season.
The Gophers did almost enough. Besides out-rebounding Michigan State, they had a higher shooting percentage at the free-throw line, from the field, and behind the three point line. But they also didn’t execute in crucial situations, didn’t dictate the flow of the game, and didn’t get any help off the bench, but still took the #8 team in the country down to the wire. This was Minnesota’s second road game of the season against a top 10 team, and both times have played better than expected. The home games against Purdue and MSU should be fun, and the Gophers should be confident, especially in their press. Coach Smith doesn’t like to press on the road because it can lead to big dunks and big momentum swings. The home crowd will demand it. A dunk by a road team is just two points. A dunk by a home team can become ten points fast, especially with Minnesota’s defense.
Before they get another shot at the Spartans they’ll need to win at still bad but dangerous Indiana. Sandwiched between two games against the Spartans, it is a classic trap game.
Who did what:
- Damian Johnson had a huge steal and a dunk late in the second half to bring the Gophers two within two of the Spartans. He also finally put together another stat sheet stuffer with 14 points, 6 rebounds,2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. His 6-14 shooting wasn’t great but they were mostly good shots that just didn’t fall.
- Ralph Sampson finally provided a post presence, something the Gophers had been lacking. He had an emphatic dunk in the first half and finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. He only took 8 shots, which isn’t enough. He also needs to find away to get to the line. He didn’t attempt a free-throw.
- Al Nolen giveth, and Al Nolen taketh. He kept the Gophers in the game with 9 first half points and his 2 offensive rebounds kept possessions alive. Ultimately though, his ill-advised drive into a quadruple team will define his night.
- Lawrence Westbrook shot the Gophers back into the game with his 15 points and 3 three-pointers. One must wonder how the game would have looked if he didn’t commit 5 turnovers. My hunch is that he did more good than bad.
- Blake Hoffarber is dependent on his teammates to get shots, and his teammates weren’t doing enough. He showed that he still belongs on the court with his 5 rebounds, but the Gophers needed points from him tonight and his four points, all on putbacks, weren’t nearly enough.
- The bench doesn’t get separated tonight, because they didn’t do anything but cost the Gophers the game. Minnesota’s 6 reserves combined for 55 minutes, 0-8 from the floor, 3-5 from the line, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, 4 turnovers, 8 fouls, and 3 points. They didn’t show up at all.