Add mental toughness to the list of characteristics that could make this a very special season of Golden Gopher basketball. In a prototypical trap game scenario, the Gophers finished both halves on big runs to beat North Dakota State.

Coming off the best week of regular season basketball in well over a decade, and right before Thanksgiving, and only a few days before the Big Ten-ACC challenge, few would have been surprised if the Gophers came out flat or at least looked disinterested. Instead, they approached Wednesday night’s challenge like any other game, and won handily.

The Gophers dominated in every facet of the game. They out-shot the Bison inside and outside the three point line. When the missed, they pulled down 46% of offensive rebound opportunities and out-rebounded NDSU by 13. The offensive ran as smoothly as it had all season as the Gophers continued to play extremely unselfish basketball as demonstrated by 23 assists on 27 made field goals. They also continued to play aggressively, getting to the free throw line 32 times compared to only 11 for the Bison.

This wasn’t a let down or a trap. It was like any other game this season.

“Like any other game” may ultimately end up being the theme of the season. In previous years the Gophers have struggled with consistency as the season progressed. They were most guilty of playing up to and down to their opponents. While that led to a few upset wins, it also led to share of bad losses. Two seasons ago was the miracle win at Wisconsin, which was followed by bad losses at Northwestern and at home to Purdue. Later in the season it the first win against Illinois in a decade immediately followed by an embarrassing loss at Michigan State. A home win over Wisconsin was followed by a nearly season killing loss to Michigan at home on Senior Day. Last season it was right back on the roller coaster, with two losses to an awful Michigan team, and huge upsets against Purdue and Michigan State. This year’s team, at least initially, has been able to stay focused on the task at hand and maintain intensity regardless of the opponent.

The ability to avoid the bad loss often separates average teams from good teams and good teams from great teams. In the 2008-2009 season, if the Gophers had avoided losing games they were expected to win, they would have gone 11-7 in the Big Ten and avoided the underrated Texas Longhorns in the NCAA tournament. With fewer bad losses last season, the run through the Big Ten tournament would have propelled the Gophers to a better seed, and not just an appearance the Big Dance. It would have also given the Gophers a 13-5 Big Ten record, their best finish in decades.

The big difference this season is the on court leadership of Blake Hoffarber, and Al Nolen, the senior co-captains. Both players are having the best seasons of their careers, and have played their best in the season’s biggest games. Nolen is making better decisions and taking the ball to the basket. Hoffarber is far more than just a three point threat. There also hasn’t been any obvious breakdowns. Last season, there were a few moments in nearly every game when players were arguing with each other or the coaching staff. The talent is their for a big season, and if the focus and intensity of the players continues, everything else might just fall into place.

Who did what:

  • Trevor Mbakwe may end up leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage. He made all three of his field goal attempts and is now shooting 69% from the field. He also continues to lead the team in free thrown attempts with another 12 against the Bison, but only made six. The “Hack a Mbakwe” defense should start soon if he can’t improve his free throw shooting. And why wouldn’t it. He can not be stopped once he has the ball down low.
  • Ralph Sampson III struggled again against physical defenders, scoring 9 points on 12 shot attempts. He won’t achieve his full potential until he can play with finesse and physicality.
  • Rodney Williams rolled the same ankle about three times, and finally left the game for good with a few minutes left in the first half. An MRI showed that there was no damage done, and he should be ready to go after missing a game or two.
  • Blake Hoffarber really is a multi-dimensional threat. We all knew about the three pointers his first three years. Early this season he has shown he is one of the more underrated passers in the country. Against the Bison he hit mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper, and  blew by his defender at the first half buzzer for a fade-away runner. He scored a team high 24 points with 10 made field goals, six inside the three-point line and four three-pointers.
  • Al Nolen did was he does best, with 5 assists and 5 steals. He also finally got a bit of a breather, playing only 28 minutes, his second lowest amount of playing time this season.
  • Maverick Ahanmisi scored his first six points as a Gopher with a three-pointer and two free-throws. He may never be anything more than a serviceable back-up, but imagine where the Gophers would be without anyone to give Al Nolen a break.
  • Maurice Walker showed that the only thing wrong about his three-point attempt against North Carolina was the timing. He made two-three-pointers, one from the top of the key and the other from the deep corner of an in-bounds play. And you know what, they both looked good. It isn’t exactly ideal to have a 300+ pound player drifting to the perimeter, but why not if defenders won’t guard him out there and he can knock down a few jumpers?
  • Austin Hollins did a fine job filling in for the injured Williams with 8 points and 4 assists with no turnovers. He also made 3-4 free-throws.
  • Chip Armelin had a mini-highlight reel in the second half with a beautiful drive and dish to Sampson III for the dunk and a Westbrookian acrobatic lay-up.
  • Colton Iverson is the perfect compliment to Sampson with his ability to mix it up down low in more physical games. He collected a game-high 11 rebounds with 6 coming on the offensive end.
  • Dominuque Dawson played is first two official minutes of basketball for the Gophers, and missed both shot attempts. He did have three rebounds.