Facing yet another personnel challenge and looking to capture their fourth straight conference victory, Minnesota pounded the ball inside against Northwestern and weathered the Wildcats’ barrage of three-pointers to take home an 81-70 victory.
The Gophers came into Wednesday’s game knowing that they could possibly be without their on-court leader and defensive stopper Al Nolen for the rest of the season, leaving them without a true Big Ten-caliber point guard and only eight scholarship players. How they would react to, and deal with, the situation was anyone’s guess, but after using a non-traditional, over-sized rotation to grind the Northwestern Wildcats into powder near the basket, Minnesota showed that they can still win games they are supposed to and execute when necessary
Using the smallest rotation of the season, number-wise, Tubby Smith ran out only eight players, with five receiving a majority of the playing time. In attempt to overpower Northwestern inside, Colton Iverson, Ralph Sampson and Trevor Mbakwe each started and played at the same time for a majority of the game – something that we haven’t seen much up, if at all, this season.
With Blake Hoffarber handling the point guard duties, the Gophers broke down the Northwestern 1-3-1 zone with efficiency and looked competent in the half-court setting. Only six players managed to register a point in the game, with five of those racking up double figures. Hoffarber led all scorers with 20 points.
With Minnesota running out Mbakwe, Sampson and Iverson for a majority of the game, there were mismatches abound for the Wildcats, who often had to use 5’10″ guard Michael Thompson on the block to defend one of the posts. This method of defense went nowhere for Northwestern, who racked up 31 personal fouls and sent to Gophers to the line 46 times. Unfortunately, Minnesota was only able to hit their free tries at a 67% clip, though that was good for 31 points.
Northwestern found themselves down by 13 early in the first half, but battled back to take a 41-40 lead into the half. With the Wildcats’ quick-strike, three-point oriented offense, they racked up points in a hurry and looked to have the Minnesota 2-3 zone figured out. The Gophers, though, went back inside during the second half and really didn’t look back. Northwestern was unable to find the basket from deep, hitting only 12 of their 39 attempts from three-point land, and were unable to hang with the Gopher big men.
This game was big for multiple reasons. Mainly, everyone was curious to see how Minnesota would come out after the news that Nolen could potentially be lost for the season. With the dynamic of the team completely changed, the game became more of a make-or-break-type contest. Would the Gophers come out flat? Would they be able to figure it out? Many figured that if they couldn’t beat Northwestern with the new lineup at home, then the season might already be lost. Without patting ourselves on the back too much, it was a good sign that the team played such a complete game against a team they should beat. We’ll see how they come out against squads like Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State, but it’s not too much to expect consistent victories over the Iowas, Penn States and Indianas for the rest of the season.
Secondly, the Gophers looked competent against the 1-3-1 zone. Anyone who saw this team last year against the Northwestern zone knows that every half-court possession was an adventure last year against this zone. I feared the worst this year as well, especially with Hoffarber handling point guard duties. However, Minnesota broke down the zone using their size, clean passes, and excellent distribution by their forwards to put points on the board. The certainly did not beat themselves.
It’s too soon to say that the team has it figured out, and there is a lot of season left for this newly reorganized team. But, this game was definitely encouraging and showed us that they will not give up, despite being faced with challenge after challenge. Purdue will be a significant increase in caliber, but there’s no reason to think Minnesota can’t hang with them for an entire 40 minutes.
Who did what:
- Trevor Mbakwe was a man amongst boys down low, racking up 18 points and 14 rebounds. Though he struggled at the line (4-10), he showed a nose for the basket against Northwestern’s zone and showcased his superior jumping ability and size advantage over the Wildcats. They had absolutely no one to match up with him and Mbakwe certainly took advantage.
- Ralph Sampson III had a great game offensively and scored in double figures for the third straight game. He was the high post against the 1-3-1 and showed his ability to distribute the ball, a key factor in successfully breaking down the zone. And was that Ralph showing some intensity? After the big man had a nice put-back, he pounded his chest ferociously. Nice to see Sampson thoroughly engaged in the game; he had 14 points and three assists in 36 minutes.
- Colton Iverson rounded out the big men with an impressive performance, and likely his best game of the year. Iverson racked up 15 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes on 5-8 shooting. Logging his highest minute total of the season, Iverson scored all of his points in the second half and looked incredibly in sync with both Sampson and Mbakwe. Those three looked to be on the same page all night, begging the question: will we see more of those three on the court at the same time more often?
- Blake Hoffarber led all scorers with 20 points. In his first game as the starting point guard, Hoffarber did an admirable job of filling in, though you can tell there might be times this season where he’ll look inadequate. He’s not the greatest ballhandler by any means, but he certainly is able to distribute the ball. The fact that he was able to act as the point guard and also score 20 points was also impressive. It’ll be interesting to see how Tubby handles the point guard playing time distribution down the road, but with Hoffarber receiving almost 100% of the duties, he looks to be the team’s best option at this point.
- Rodney Williams made ESPN’s top plays with another crazy dunk, but otherwise had a relatively unimpressive game on offense, scoring only four points, going 0-3 from deep and failing to cash in on four trips to the free throw line. Williams did dish out six assists, pull down five boards, grab a couple steals and swat a couple blocks, so he made up for his absence on offense with a solid rest of his game.
- Austin Hollins seemingly came out of nowhere to rack up 10 points and hit free throws down the stretch. With people assuming either Chip Armelin or Mav Ahanmisi would see increased playing time, it was Hollins who made the most of his 14 minutes. He brought a nice intensity off the bench including defensive pressure that resulted in two steals. If Hollins keeps playing with confidence he could see himself getting big sixth-man minutes going forward.
- Chip Armelin and Mav Ahanmisi saw very little action totaling only 11 minutes between the two and failing to score. Though it was probably due to Tubby not wanting to throw two unproven freshmen into the lineup against an imposing defense, it’s interesting to see just how little playing time they got. We’ll see what happens against Purdue on Saturday when the Gophers face a more traditional team.