Ugh.  Just one of those games that frustrates you from getting beat and not being able to do anything about it.  Not that the Gophers were dominated by Virginia for much of the game, but for a seven minute stretch in which the Gophers couldn’t score and the Cavs couldn’t miss, the game quickly got out of hand and never really bounced back the other way.

Perhaps the takeaway that stings the most is the fact the Gophers really didn’t play all that poorly.  Sure, they didn’t execute at crucial times, but it wasn’t a meltdown by any means.  They shot well (50%) and didn’t turn the ball over that often, committing only 11 turnovers.  They essentially got outshot by a Virginia team that couldn’t miss. It’s hard to keep up with team that’s hitting three-pointers at a 77% clip, no matter who you are.

Virginia has to be given a lot of credit, as well.  The Cavs did almost nothing to hurt their chances and worked hard to put themselves in the position of making the Gophers beat them.  They sunk their free throws, hit their open shots and took care of the ball.  When a team is doing all of those things correctly, it can be hard to beat. Virgina freshman Joe Harris scored 24 points on 8-12 shooting, including 4-6 from the beyond the arc.  Mustapha Farrakhan nearly matched him, scoring 23 points including four more three-pointers.

The Gophers surely missed Al Nolen, though Devoe Joseph did his best to fill in, scoring 16 points off the bench.  The offense just didn’t have the same look with with Nolen sitting out.  Maverick Ahanmisi got the start in his place and tried to fill the gap, but wasn’t able to move the offense as smoothly as Nolen had done so far this season. Surely it’s unfair to expect a freshman to fill the shoes of a fourth-year senior and the team obviously missed his leadership in the loss.  Having a rusty Joseph trying to help run things also didn’t help.

For the Gophers, dropping their first game this season is hard, and losing to a team like Virginia hurts more,  but what might be the most frustrating part is the fact that Minnesota held a lead of 13 points as late as the second half.  Then the team went cold, and Virginia got hot.  Still, with ample opportunity for Minnesota to inch back into the game, the team didn’t play smartly or effectively.  The Gophers didn’t utilize their size or physical advantage (paging Ralph Sampson), and frustratingly bricked free throw after free throw at crucial, possible momentum-swinging junctures.  Chucking threes when you’re down seven points with five minutes to go is no way to claw back into a game.  The team ended the night only 9-22 from three-point land.

But let’s not panic.

First, this is not the same team that opened up 6-0 and is ranked #13 in the ESPN Coaches Poll.  For one, the team started Austin Hollins and Ahanmisi, two freshmen, while veterans Nolen, Joseph and Rodney Williams sat on the bench to begin the game – two of which have been instrumental in leading the Gophers to where they are right now.  Virginia is still an ACC team, and one that will make you pay for looking past and starting a relative B-squad against them.  Minnesota still lost, but they outplayed the Cavaliers for 2/3 of the game without two of their best players.

Second, teams lose in college basketball.  That’s just what happens.  Purdue just lost to Richmond with two of the best players in the nation.  Are they still a top-15 team?  Of course.  Are the Gophers still a top-25, Sweet Sixteen-caliber team?  Yes they are.  One loss to an apparent below-average team doesn’t change that.  In fact, it probably shrinks the heads of  the players who had been hearing about how great they were for the past two weeks.  They know they actually have to come out and play if they want to take down someone on any given night.  This game reinforces that.

Gopher Nation should instead be concerned about other things, like where Sampson was all night, what we’re going to do with Blake Hoffarber’s defense during the Big Ten season or why Joseph takes such ill-advised shots.  Those things should be more concerning.

Who Did What:

  • Trevor Mbakwe was the brightest spot on the team during the loss, putting up 18 points, pulling down 11 boards and swatting five blocks.  Mbakwe is an animal down low and hasn’t had his intensity matched all season.  However, the guy is going to have to fix his post-up game if he wants to hang in the paint in the Big Ten.  Offensive rebounds and put-backs are great, but a couple fresh moves to get to the hoop in a post-up situation will really complement out his game.
  • Ralph Sampson III was just plain ineffective.  Even with dad in the stands, Sampson put up two points and picked up four fouls in 21 minutes.  Even more, he only attempted two shots and didn’t get to the free throw line once.  You’d like to hand it to Virginia for taking him out of the game, but that’s just not what happened.  Sampson took himself out of the game in a situation where his team needed him to step up.  This performance is alarming on a couple levels, but mainly that this was the third game where Sampson hasn’t gotten it done.
  • Devoe Joseph appeared in his first game all season after a mysterious absence whose cause still hasn’t been officially determined.  Joseph brings a unique offensive presence to the team in that he is basically the only player who can create his own shot off the dribble and score.  Joseph scored 16 points off the bench, hit a few three-pointers and didn’t turn the ball over.  Maybe it was the rust of not playing so far this season, but Joseph did not appear to be a proper remedy for the struggles the Gophers faced.  Doing his best Lawrence Westbrook impression, Joseph launched contested threes, drove madly down the lane and basically took control of the game coming down the stretch.  This, in effect, hurt the Gophers’ chances at a comeback more than it helped during a time when they should have been going back to fundamentals like making multiple passes and getting the ball down low for a higher-percentage shot.  Joseph brings a great game to the offense but, as we’ve seen in the past, he sometimes needs to tone it down.
  • Blake Hoffarber did as much as he could, hitting a combination of three-pointers and mid-range jumpers for 19 points while dishing out five assists.  Hoffarber’s offensive impact can’t be overstated, but the Cavaliers simply abused him on defense and Hoffarber was the direct cause on a number of open shots for Virginia.
  • Austin Hollins received extensive playing time and scored six points in 26 minutes.  Hollins, though, just looks like a freshman out there.  Poor cuts, sloppy passing and tentativeness with the ball scream insecurity.  I’m hoping he gets more comfortable with the offense through greater playing time, but at this point he looks like a liability.
  • Maverick Ahanmisi was thrust into starting PG duties with Al Nolen’s foot injury and showed he can be a serviceable, albeit unspectacular, floor general.  In reality, that’s all you can really expect from your backup freshman point guard.  He scored two points in 16 minutes and committed only one turnover.
  • Rodney Williams, coming off the bench due to a sprained ankle, played only seven minutes.  Minnesota certainly missed his athleticism, especially on defense.
  • Colton Iverson came off the bench as well, scoring five points to go with four rebounds.  What seems like a habit he can’t kick, Iverson is able to get to, or near, the rim but just doesn’t have enough touch to get the ball to drop.  Maddening at times, duffed bunnies and rock hands are starting to plague Iverson down low on offense.
  • Chip Armelin made the most of his 16 minutes, putting up seven shots, picking up five fouls and scoring seven points.  Chip is showing that he isn’t afraid to handle the ball in crunch time, but his shot selection down the stretch left something to be desired.

Photo courtesy of Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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