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Trevor Mbakwe pulls down one of his 12 rebounds against Iowa.

Fresh off a thrilling home-court upset over the Purdue Boilermakers, many considered the Iowa Hawkeyes to be merely a speed bump in a string of games against lower-tier Big Ten opponents, looking past the bottom-dwelling Hawkeyes towards more intense games.  Consider the Gophers part of that group.

Fighting through disinterested, lackadaisical performances, Minnesota gave away a 15-point lead, even falling behind at one point in the second half, before battling back to take home a 69-59 victory.  The Gophers used a 23-6 run after finding themselves trailing by three to take a 60-46 lead with under four minutes to go.  That almost wasn’t enough, however, as the team saw Iowa fight back to within six points on separate occasions before falling short.

However, Minnesota showed its all-around depth, and on a night when Blake Hoffarber’s shots weren’t falling (2-10 from the field), the team leaned on its big men on both sides of the court, with Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe posting big numbers both on offense and defense.

It was a classic defensive performance for the team as a whole and they played the style of basketball that they’ve played so often this season by taking away nearly all of their opponent’s frontcourt game and forcing them to win through the air.  Iowa wasn’t able to get anything done down low as Sampson and Mbakwe forcefully denied that option, racking up 10 blocks between themselves.  Instead, the Hawkeyes settled for jump shots and three-pointers, which, for them, isn’t a recipe for success.

Many expected a blowout coming into the game, but I think this game reminded everyone that even the worst teams in the Big Ten will make you work for the victory.  Iowa earlier played Ohio State extremely tough, making the Buckeyes work hard for their victory and yesterday’s game was no different.  There are (and will be) no gimmes this season, which could prompt the Gophers to slip up over their next stretch of games which has them facing Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana in three of their next four.  If they act as aloof as they did against the Hawkeyes, those aforementioned squads might make quick work of them.

An interesting side note:  For the first time all season Tubby basically used a five-man rotation and no bench player received more than nine minutes of playing time (I’m considering Colton Iverson a bench player in this instance).  Tubby relied almost exclusively on Nolen, Mbakwe, Sampson, Williams and Hoffarber, a rotation he’s been forced to utilize now that Mo Walker and Devoe Joseph are no longer available.  For one thing, it’s good for the flow of the game to have the same guys playing together, more or less, and his classic 10-man rotations seemed to interrupt momentum at times earlier in the season.  If this type of substituting is a trend it will be interesting to see how the team responds going forward.

Who did what:

  • Al Nolen is slowly becoming one of the team’s focal points on offense, especially in the absence of Devoe Joseph.  Nolen racked up 13 points, including a couple timely threes and was solid at the free-throw line, hitting seven of eight.  Nolen is becoming adept at driving the lane when things in the half-court set aren’t flowing well, which helps get the offense moving and contributes to better opportunities down low.  On a night when Hoffarber wasn’t even close to open, Nolen did a great job of forcing the issue.  If he’s not out of control in those situations good things tend to happen.  Nolen also pulled down a surprising eight rebounds, of which four were offensive.  Along with his three steals, Nolen was the MVP of the game in my opinion.
  • Ralph Sampson III was a monster on defense, swatting seven blocks and grabbing six rebounds.  He also scored in double figures (11 points) for the first time since late December and dished out four assists.  For the first time in what seemed like forever, Sampson’s shots were actually falling and Iowa was forced to respect his presence on offense.  The Gophers don’t need monster games from Ralph, but they do need to him contribute solidly down low.  His defense alone makes him a 35-minute guy, but pair that with 8-10 points a game and you have a nice weapon that can cause problems for other teams.
  • Trevor Mbakwe again was the player on Minnesota that the opponent had no answer for and dominated Iowa to the tune of 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.  Coming off the bench, Mbakwe still played 35 minutes and managed to stay out of foul trouble for the fourth straight game.  When Mbakwe is on the court, he causes tremendous mismatches on both sides of the ball and other teams just can’t match his intensity on the boards, allowing him to come down with rebound after rebound.  The fact that he’s been able to stay out of foul trouble has been a huge boon lately for Minnesota.
  • Blake Hoffarber had a quiet game and you could tell he was frustrated with not being able to get open.  The team’s leading scorer, Hoffarber finished with only nine points on 2-10 shooting and went 0-4 from deep.  At times Hoffarber tried to force a couple shots, which is fine, but he was completely suffocated nearly the entire game.  As we saw last year, if Hoffaber can’t get open off of screens he has a hard time creating his own shot.  If opponents are draped all over him they can take him out of the game rather effectively.  However, Hoffarber also had a rough game from the floor, so at this point we’ll consider his off night more of an anomaly than a trend.
  • Rodney Williams had a couple highlight dunks, which drove the crowd into a frenzy, and finished with seven points and six rebounds.  Right now it’s obvious that Williams’ shooting confidence is basically shot.  His jumpers look unsure and you can tell that he doesn’t trust himself.  His bread and butter at this point is getting as close to the basket as he can before getting a shot off and working in transition.  While it would be nice to see him hit some jumpers, he can be much more valuable to the Gophers going forward if he concentrates on out-performing everyone down low.  He’s a small forward by nature, but he can jump higher than most guys on the court, and if he’s not sitting around the perimeter waiting for the pass he could be another weapon for the team in the frontcourt.  Just a thought.
  • Colton Iverson started the game in place of Mbakwe, but failed to record 10 minutes due to foul trouble.  Iverson finished with four points in nine minutes to match his four fouls.
  • Austin Hollins racked up seven points in eight minutes and brought some nice output to the team in the first half.  Along with Chip Armelin, the freshmen bench players did a nice job filling in during their limited time.  Armelin continues to bring intensity in his short-lived action, but he’s already showing he could be a weapon down the line once he gains more experience.

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