Maybe it was Tubby’s post-Illinois tirade that cleared the heads of some players. Maybe the team had a moment of clarity in the aftermath of the first four-game losing streak in the Tubby Smith era. Maybe they were just playing a crappy opponent. In any case, Minnesota came together and flashed a style of dominance not yet seen since Al Nolen hit the bench with a foot injury. In fact, the Gophers had their most convincing road victory in over three years, taking down the Iowa Hawkeyes 62-45.
The game had one major implication: it showed us that the team still has some drive left. After losing four straight in ugly fashion, including dropping two winnable games against Indiana and Illinois, it was hard to tell if the Gophers even had the personnel to beat a team like Iowa. Anyone that saw the performances over the last couple weeks certainly had to be skeptical that Minnesota could be anyone, let alone take care of business on the road. Rodney Williams looked liked he was lost, lack of depth at point guard was proving to be insurmountable, and veteran leadership was lacking en masse.
In a change of fortune, though, the Gophers came to play in a big way at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Williams showed aggressiveness and confidence and Trevor Mbakwe showed just how dominant he can be on offense, scoring 24 points (22 in the second half) and hitting 10-11 from the free throw line. Crazy, I know. Even on a night when Blake Hoffarber didn’t his a single three-pointer, the team still maintained its poise and went into the half on a 24-6 run.
Williams filled up the box score with 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists, showing us that he can still execute when he concentrates. And though Mbakwe scored 24 points, I still think Williams’ performance was the key takeaway from the game. With Minnesota’s lack of depth, it’s guys like Williams and Colton Iverson who need to step up and perform. Williams had basically been invisible the previous five games and was openly criticized by Smith following another subpar performance against Illinois. Perhaps the tactic worked. Williams looked more keyed in than he had since his previous all-around performance against Michigan, shooting with confidence and crashing the boards. Hopefully this type of play isn’t a mirage as the Gophers desperately need Williams to continue to play at a higher level as they close out the season.
However, the game against Iowa was not without faults. The Hawkeyes employed the tactic of trying to beat the Gophers from long range, which many teams have used throughout the season. Iowa ended up making only 6-28 three pointers, but whether or not those misses were due to Minnesota’s defensive pressure is hard to say. The eye test seemed to indicate that the Hawkeyes were merely missing open shots that the Gophers were giving up. It’s entirely possible that a team with better shooting prowess could have taken advantage of all of the uncontested shots. The missed shots led to a lot of runouts for the Gophers and points in transition, which allowed them to do much more damage.
Also slightly concerning was the 12 combined points between Hoffarber, Iverson and Ralph Sampson III. In fact, Sampson may have had the worst game of anyone, going 1-5 from the field, turning the ball over four times and failing to get to the free throw line once. Against an undersized Hawkeye team, that line is almost unacceptable. Hoffarber didn’t fare much better, hitting only one of his six shots and going 0-3 from long range. The freshmen off the bench negated some of missing offense from the starters, with the bench combining for 13 points. Mav Ahanmisi showed some flash, scoring seven points in 11 minutes and Austin Hollins swiped three steals in his 19 minutes. Chip Armelin saw his playing time plummet after two games of extended minutes, scoring two points in only five minutes of action. Considering Armelin played a combined 41 minutes over two games, the severe slash in PT is a bit head-scratching. A likely reason might be that Tubby was interested in getting Ahanmisi some extra playing time with a comfortable lead.
Though the quality of opponent by no means ensures that Minnesota is on the road to recovery, it certainly doesn’t hurt to see the team dominate someone they should be dominating. With the margin for error much tighter than it was five games ago, the Gophers can no longer afford to lose to teams they should be beating. The remaining schedule is relatively attractive, with multiple games against Penn State, a game against Michigan and a date in Evanston with Northwestern. In fact, the Gophers don’t face a ranked opponent in their final five games. Beating Iowa soundly at least proves for the time being that Minnesota is actually capable of taking care of business.