Several questions faced the Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball team as they entered Big Ten conference play. How would they handle the relative increased level of competition? Would they play up to their opponent after playing down so often in the non-conference season? How would the team look with both Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph healthy and playing? These questions were more or less answered in Minnesota’s frustrating 68-60 road loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten season opener in which they were torched by Jordan Taylor and unable to convert down the stretch in the first in a gauntlet of games that will see the Gophers face Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State in three of their next four contests.
After falling behind 40-30 early in the second half, it appeared that Minnesota might be supremely outmatched on a night where Taylor was seemingly scoring at will and Wisconsin was not committing any unforced errors. The Badgers logged only two turnovers for the entire GAME, forcing Minnesota to get it done offensively without any help.
Even with Jon Leuer (16 points) and Taylor (22 points) dominating offensively, the Gophers found themselves in a position to tie or even take the lead after Taylor missed a three-pointer with 26 seconds remaining. A late second-half spark erased the Badger lead and even gave Minnesota a brief 54-53 advantage on a thunderous Trevor Mbakwe dunk, but the Gophers would only score six points over the final six minutes of the game. Minnesota, who outrebounded Wisconsin to the tune of 42-24, failed to pull in the awkward miss and were forced to foul again, icing the Badger win.
Though the Gophers failed to record the win, the loss overall wasn’t alarming. The team put itself in a position to win in an extremely tough environment against a fundamentally solid team. Wisconsin doesn’t take very many ill-advised shots, doesn’t turn the ball over and doesn’t miss free throws. Put those together and Minnesota had to play near perfect basketball to pull out the win on the road.
Mildly frustrating was the fact that Gophers found themselves in a position to tie and even win late in game, but were not able to convert on several given opportunities on relatively easy attempts. In fact, Minnesota was 1-9 from the field in the final four minutes, several of which were shots that came from within 10-15 feet and had second-chance opportunities.
The Gophers travel to Lansing on Friday to square off against the Michigan State Spartans; the next in a series of early-season tests that will show us who the Gophers really are this season.
Who did what:
- Ralph Sampson III had a solid game and found himself involved heavily during crunch time. Sampson ended the night with 14 points and seven rebounds (five of which were offensive) before fouling out. Sampson also found himself at the free throw line five times down the stretch, but hit only two of the shots when he could have tied the game. Minnesota didn’t miss many free throws, but those two definitely hurt.
- Trevor Mbakwe recorded his eigth double-double of the season, pulling down 11 rebounds to match his 11 points. Though he filled up the stat sheet on paper, he didn’t get himself involved at great lengths throughout the game, and mainly scored on put backs. Th0ugh the Gophers didn’t own any sort of size advantage over Wisconsin, it would have been nice to see what Mbakwe could have done given the opportunity down low.
- Rodney Williams came out strong to start the game, scoring five quick points, but quickly disappeared. He looked lost for much of the game after that, not getting himself open and not quite sure what to do with the ball once he got it. After his initial outburst, Williams was basically a non-factor.
- Al Nolen had an enigma of a game, failing to record a point while pulling down six rebounds in the process and grabbing two rebounds. Nolen wasn’t his lockdown self on defense, due mainly to the fact that he wasn’t able to get into a rhythm by splitting time down the middle with Devoe Joseph. Nolen also found himself mismatched against Jon Leuer a couple times on key possessions after defensives switches, allowing Jordan Taylor to light up Ralph Sampson. Going 0-6 from the field, Nolen missed three key attempts in the final two minutes that would have brought the Gophers to within one points or even tied the game.
- Blake Hoffarber did his best to separate himself and get open shots, but was often faceguarded and only got off four three-point attempts. Blake ended with 12 points on 5-10 shooting, including 2-4 from beyond the arc.
- Devoe Joseph came off the bench to record 14 points, dish out seven assists and only turn the ball over once in reserve point guard duties. However, for every shot that Joseph was able to convert on, he had a completely ill-advised shot that banked hard off the backboard and went right back to the Badgers. This was epitomized after a Gopher timeout with four minutes left in which Joseph pulled up off the inbounds and was completely off target. With the team down by three at the time and in a tight battle, a shot like that is completely worthless. Joseph had several nice conversions, but also left us scratching our heads as he has so often this season with fast-break pull-up jumpers and spin moves in traffic. Further, he was a complete defensive liability and contributed directly to many of Taylor’s 22 points. Joseph is an offensive weapon, but he needs to learn to reign it in, and soon.
- Colton Iverson, who will be seeing increased minutes with Mo Walker’s season-ending injury, scored two points on 1-5 shooting, though he did make his size known, pulling down seven rebounds. Like I said before, Iverson is in desperate need of some touch down low, and with Walker out, he’ll need to be a big, solid reserve.
- Mav Ahanmisi, Chip Armelin and Austin Hollins were relative non-factors off the bench, combining for three points in 15 total minutes.
Photo courtesy of Andy Manis, AP.