I came into yesterday’s game with above-average expectations for a team that, for the most part, has underachieved all season. They’d been up and down for the better part of the last month but were coming off a stretch where they had won two of three and seemed to have been gaining some momentum after an exciting Penn State finish. A win over a struggling, down-on-their-luck Wolverines squad at home was going to propel the Gophers into a season-saving finish that would land them in the Big Dance. Minnesota, instead, virtually demolished any hope of saving a spot in the field of 65 and, barring a miraculous turnaround, all but stamped their ticked to the NIT…maybe.
For the first time all season, I was actually sad when the game ended. Not just because Minnesota lost to a subpar team, (that’s happened all season) but because it was finally apparent that this is just not an NCAA Tournament-worthy squad. We’ve been trying to be optimistic the whole season in light of missed opportunities, botched chances and overall poor play, but there were glimmers of hope that things would eventually turnaround as time progressed. In the back of our minds we just wanted the opportunity for the team to redeem itself down the stretch. The Michigan game, however, showed us that the players are just not ready to take the next step. Sloppy play and poor execution at critical times sealed the Gopher fate last night and basically buried their Big Dance chances.
It’s not as if the Wolverines even played a superb game. They took awful shots at times, made a couple bonehead plays and basically allowed Minnesota to hang around. The Gophers, though, only came away with three steals and turned the ball over 15 times. Not once did they put themselves in the driver’s seat. Top to bottom, they didn’t look remotely close to what a veteran team like theirs should look like at home at this point in the season, which is unacceptable. To be fair, they are missing defensive leader Al Nolen and big-time recruits in Mbakwe and Royce White, but having been without all three for a significant amount of time, the period for excuses, and losses to teams like Michigan, is over. At this point, Minnesota basically has to beat Wisconsin and Purdue at home and take a couple road games at either Michigan, Illinois or Northwestern if they even want to sniff a shot at the postseason. Ish.
Game Notes: (pardon the sarcastic hyperbole)
- Devoe Joseph was once again basically invisible as the starting point guard. Since his 16-point premiere as a starter, Joseph has 18 points and 14 turnovers in four games. He was supposed to provide an offensive boost in Al Nolen’s absence but hasn’t proven to be much more than a turnover-prone, defensive liability who makes suspect decisions at critical moments.
- Ralph Sampson was 2-7 from the field and 3-6 from the free throw line. Ralph’s inadequacy down low has become borderline embarrassing. At this point I’d rather have Damian Johnson in the post rather than RSIII duffing two-foot layups that a third grader should be making.
- One of the two lone bright spots in the game was Blake Hoffarber, who went 4-8 from three-point land and basically single-handedly kept Minnesota’s morale up during the contest.
- Paul Carter, the other bright spot, was a force off the bench playing 23 minutes, hitting two threes, scoring 11 points and pulling down five rebounds. Pair Carter’s intensity with Ralph Sampson’s height and maybe you have a complete player.
- Damian Johnson was his usual all-around self: 10 points, seven rebounds, no turnovers, 4-4 from the line. That is a line that you like to see from one of your senior players.
- A line you don’t want to see from one of your leaders was Lawrence Westbrook’s: seven points, four turnovers, no free throw attempts and no steals.
- And wouldn’t you know it? Michigan, one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams shot 50% on 7-14 from behind the arc. Unbelievable.
The Gophers travel to Evanston on Sunday for a rematch with the Northwestern Wildcats. If we’re talking absolutes then this game isn’t necessarily a must-win (Minnesota could feasibly win it’s final six games and make the tournament), but operating under the assumption that Gophers won’t beat Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois the team really, really, really needs to beat Northwestern on the road. Really.