I remember back when I was a kid at the Illinois State Fair walking around the Midway with my dad. He told me about one of his all-time favorite rides that he really wanted us to check out. It was called the “Scrambler.” What the ride actually entails is pretty unimportant, but the fact was that it started out pretty fun, and then became utterly terrifying. As a five year old, I really didn’t know when it would end or how intense it was going to be. I just really wanted to get off the ride and be back on solid ground.
While I’ve shed less tears this year in light of the Gophers amazing incompetence than I did back at that State Fair, I feel that the Scrambler provides a terrific analogy. I’m not sure how long this ride will be or how intense it will get; all I know is that I want off. I want the operator to see how miserable everyone on this ride is and just put an end to it. That’s what this season has morphed into: a ride that people initially thought was fun, but now are begging to be let off.
The Gophers dropped another game to another team that they should have beaten after holding another lead. You can basically “insert team here” when it comes to giving away leads and dropping close games nowadays. This time it was Northwestern, a team playing for little more than their seniors on Senior Night, that Minnesota impressively gave away a 10-point lead to. It was an ugly game for both sides until the Wildcats decided to go on a second-half surge that saw them score 37 points to Minnesota’s 16 after the 10-point disadvantage.
The loss marked the team’s eighth in its last nine games, and provided Tubby Smith with the dubious honor of having his second four-game losing streak in less than a month and a half. The frustration of a failed season even boiled over between Smith and Blake Hoffarber when the two engaged in a bit of a shouting match late in the game during a timeout.
I know we all knew that losing Al Nolen was going to be rough on the team and figured they’d, at worse, drop a bunch of games. But did anyone really think the team would have sunk to a depth such as this? The position this team has managed to reach is bordering on pathetic. In fact, the Gophers are officially the sole owner of ninth place in the Big Ten, ahead of only Iowa and Indiana. That’s pretty awful company.
We knew we’d have our hands full with Illinois and Michigan State. Some of us might have even thought that we’d have trouble on the road at Penn State. However, I don’t many people thought we’d be sitting here, losers of seven of eight, with losses to Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern added to the mix. This is more than just the loss of Al Nolen, this is something much worse. There is no cohesiveness on offense and no fluidity. People are afraid to take open shots and confidence has bottomed out. (P.S. – What in God’s name is happening to Austin Hollins? He was recruited as a shooter, right? The airball thing he has going is frightening.)
The scariest part is that the team you see on the court now is close to what we’ll see next year, albeit with the only shooter, Hoffaber, graduated. No Nolen, no Hoffarber. That’s a scary prospect. Yes, we have two highly touted freshman recruits coming to town, but can you really expect them to contribute at a super high level right out of the gate? Is Mav Ahanmisi really going to be handling the ball next year? That’s scary.
Last night’s game raised more questions and showed just how out of sorts the team really is. I mean, Northwestern played a bad, bad game for 3/4 of the contest. This isn’t something foreign to the Gophers as they have seen some pretty bad performances over the past few weeks. And, just like the other games (Michigan State, Penn State, Illinois) where they were given ample opportunity to take over the game, the team just failed to put them away when they had the chance. Northwestern scored just four points in the first six minutes of the second half and missed its first six shots. Only once in those six minutes were the Gophers able to turn those missed shots into points. When a bad team is struggling, you have to be able to put them away.
Unfortunately, Minnesota’s M.O. lately has been to play down to the other team while they’re struggling, without establishing command. Even last night, did the 10-point lead really feel that safe? The Gophers were playing just as poorly as Northwestern was; the lead didn’t really feel “earned.” In fact, you almost felt like we almost didn’t deserve such a lead. It was a strange feeling, but one that definitely didn’t feel foreign.
In terms of numbers, Trevor Mbakwe was the only player to score in double figures, racking up 14 points. Once again, he was an animal down low, pulling down 12 rebounds and simply abusing the Wildcats. I’ve been scratching my head about it all year, but I honestly don’t understand why Mbakwe doesn’t at least get one touch per possession on the block. Sure, he’ll miss some shots here and there, but teams really haven’t had an answer for him this season. Why we’ll settle for an airball by Hollins or a contested Ahanmisi three-pointer is something I’m still failing to understand. Even though Mbakwe is the leading scorer, I still don’t feel like he is properly utilized.
And, boy, for a team that doesn’t shoot all that well and touts itself as a “big” team, we certainly shot a lot of three pointers. The team attempted 17 in the night, hitting only 3, which is a lot of wasted possessions, if you ask me. Especially when the attempts are coming from people like Hollins (4) and Ahnamisi (6), not much is going to go right. Wouldn’t you rather give those attempts to Mbakwe down low? Say he converts on only six of the 12 attempts that people not named “Blake Hoffarber” took that might have gone to him. That’s 12 points right there. Just something to think about.
Another interesting storyline from the game was the lack of playing time for Chip Armelin, who played only nine minutes. Since his 12-point performance against Michigan State, Armelin has played a combined 15 minutes in two games. Perhaps it’s another personnel issue with Tubby, but it seems to make very little sense, especially when the team is looking for a catalyst with energy.
Minnesota attempts to cap off this extraordinary meltdown on Sunday at home against Penn State. Not much to play for at this point, except a possible showcase that we still belong in the NIT and not the CBI. But, hey, at least it’s something, right?