I hope you’ll excuse me for not delving into the finer details of Minnesota’s latest blown lead and missed buzzer beater. If you saw last season’s Michigan game, or this year’s games against Michigan State or at Indiana and Northwestern you know how the story goes. This team is as formulaic as any of the Rocky movies. Minor details change (the size of the blown lead, how quickly it was blown, who missed the potential winning shot, whether Rocky was fighting Mr. T or some sort of Russian cyborg) but the plot is the same. And I also hope you’ll forgive me for largely ignoring tomorrow’s game against Illinois. I think we know the outcome already, with Minnesota’s zero and which ever large number you’d like record the last decade or two at Illinois.
Every team at this stage of the season has an identity. For the Gophers, it is an inability to win close games. It is what it is, and it isn’t likely to change over the next few weeks, but the team’s attitude has changed and future looks a lot brighter than it did after the horrid home loss against Michigan.
Despite losing, again, in heart breaking fashion, the Purdue game should raise every Gopher fan’s spirits. A quick perusal of the box score is a reason for hope. Next year’s nucleus played important roles, and even in areas that they did not contribute, there is potential waiting in the wings.
Ralph Sampson showed that he has the ability, and yes, the fire to be a corner stone to build around. He scored 21 points on only 11 field goal attempts against Jujuan Johnson, the so-called best center in the Big Ten. It was only the fifth time in his career that he has attempted at least 10 shots, and that should and will change. He isn’t a consistent scorer yet, but he has made more than half his shot attempts throughout his career. If the shots come so will the points.
Colton Iverson has gotten a lot of grief for a panicked put back attempt that ultimately led to Purdue’s first lead in several minutes, but what is lost is that he got to the loose ball. He has been getting to more loose balls and making more subtly spectacular plays in recent games that have led to extra possessions, and extra points. He is an above average passer in the post that will get the ball to Sampson in a position to score. Most importantly, the kid is tough. Sampson may become a good scorer, a decent rebounder, and a solid defender, but he isn’t going to strike fear into anyone. Iverson and his elbows already do.
The back court story isn’t quite so optimistic. If Al Nolen doesn’t get his academic act together there will be a hole to fill at point guard, but Devoe is learning. He has shown over the last few games that he can get to the rim and actually finish, something Nolen has always struggled with. His game management skills have also improved. The offense has been humming since he moved into the starting line-up. He doesn’t force shots, though he doesn’t make many either. A summer of shooting should improve that. Joseph’s real problem is his momentary lapses. A few times each game he’ll attempt a dumb pass or forget to rebound. They are signs of immaturity, and they’ll diminish with experience.
Blake Hoffarber plays smart and can shoot like no one else in the country. He isn’t as well rounded as he could be, and he can be an athletic liability, but he won’t bite off more than he can chew. Most importantly, he keeps the defense honest. There won’t be many double-teams of Sampson with Hoffarber on the floor, and the zone defense, which crushed Minnesota’s offensive confidence early in the season, has all but disappeared from opponents’ defensive arsenals.
Damian Johnson will be missed, but he isn’t irreplaceable either. Paul Carter and Johnson are remarkably similar players, with remarkably similar statistics if Carter’s are adjusted for his relative lack of playing time. In fact, Carter’s scoring and rebounding averages are slightly better than Johnson’s on a per minute basis. And no one will question his leadership.
The future is bright, and that is not something I expected to be writing about after the Michigan game. There are bound to be continued growing pains. I fully expect the Gophers to come out flat against the Illini, and why wouldn’t they after another close loss. There will be moans and groans if they only make the NIT, especially with pre-season expectations so high. The destination isn’t what anyone had in mind, but the journey has been fun.