After one game, the Golden Gophers already have what should prove to be a quality win when tournament time comes around. It won’t be a win that makes headlines around the country, and the Gophers won’t get any in the non-conference season. A series of good wins can ultimately equal some of the great non-conference wins we to which we have grown accustomed, and it was pretty clear Friday night that the Bucknell Bison are not a bunch of slouches.
Last year’s Gopher basketball team, or at least the shell of a team that ended last season, wouldn’t have been able to pull off a win. Missed shot after missed shot kept the Bison in the game despite an obvious Gopher advantage in size and talent. In fact, the Gophers bricked their way to a 3-19 start to the second half from the field. Thanks to stellar defense, even on the perimeter, they were able to maintain a small and steady lead. All good things came to an end though, and the Bison knocked down three-pointers on three straight possessions to turn a four point Gopher lead into a five point deficit with about five minutes left in the game.
The Gopher faithful had seen this before. Bryson Johnson, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Talor Battle, had made absolutely ridiculous three-pointers, and his teammates who combined for the seventh best three-point shooting percentage in the country, looked like they were about to shoot the Gophers into a very disappointing start to the season. It didn’t help that Bucknell’s uniforms were strikingly similar to Virginia’s, who gave the Gophers their lone non-conference loss last year behind 10 for 13 three-point shooting. The Gophers were poised to crumble, nearly everyone in the Barn expected it, except the Gophers themselves.
Not only didn’t the Gophers crumble, they put together their best five minutes of basketball since Al Nolen’s injury last season. An Austin Hollins three-pointer book-ended by two perfect trips to the free-throw line grabbed the lead back in two minutes. A minute later Hollins was fouled on a three-point attempt, and made all three attempts at the line. The five point deficit was a five point lead. Julian Welch and Mbakwe took care of the rest combining for 10 points and 6 of 8 free-throw shooting in the last two minutes of the game to turn a near upset loss into a double-digit win.
There were a lot of positives besides the fact that the Gophers started the season with a win, especially considering some glaring deficiencies. The Gophers continue to demonstrate that until something dramatically changes, they simply cannot shoot. They made only 20% of their three-point attempts, 47% of their two-point attempts, and only 65% of their free-throw attempts despite hovering in the mid 40% range for most of the game. When it really mattered though, they found a way to score. Minnesota knocked down nine free throws in a row, no small feat for a generally bad shooting team, and on top of that they made four of their last five field goal attempts of the game. The only real problem with the offense most of the night was Minnesota’s inability to make a basket. The offense created plenty of good scoring opportunities, but whether they were open threes, mid-range jumpers, or generally open lay-ups, the shots would not fall. This wasn’t last season’s stand around and miss a three at the end of the shot clock, so there is some hope that those shots will eventually fall.
Lost among the offensive struggles was a vastly improved defense that should make some of Tubby Smith’s toughest critics take notice. For one game at least, the Gophers all but abandoned their automatic collapse to the post, and let their interior defenders, who are among the best shot blockers in the country, take care of their own business. Not only did the Gophers hold the Bison to only 30% shooting on two point attempts, they allowed only 12 three-point attempts. Bucknell did make six of them, and that will need to improve. Last season, the Gophers gave up the second most points from behind the three-point line and the third most three-point attempts, with opponents shooting 43% of all field goal attempts from the outside. Last night the Gophers allowed only 18 points from the outside and Bucknell shot a thoroughly average 34% of their field goal attempts from behind the three-point line. The Gophers also managed to collect 7 steals which they turned into 14 points. Last season’s Gophers were one of the most futile steal inducing major college teams.
The Gophers still have a lot to work on, and will inevitable have something to work on all season with such a young team. Despite their youth, they showed poise, toughness, and character that led to a good win that should prove valuable as the season goes on.
Who did what:
Rodney Williams played within himself. Perhaps realizing that he wasn’t meant to be much of an outside shooter, he spent most of the night attacked the glass and finding gaps in the defense to slash to the basket. He finished with six points and five rebounds. It would have been eight points at least, but he grazed the sideline with his back foot with nothing between him and the basket.
Trevor Mbakwe was all but ignored by his teammates in the first half. It is a 40 minute game though, and he is too big and too good to stay silent. Notching his 2oth double-double in his Gopher career, the senior All-American candidate finished the game with 17 points and ten rebounds. His five offensive rebounds were instrumental in the Gophers’ 21 second chance points.
Ralph Sampson III’s eight first half points kept the Gophers in the game, and his general stat sheet stuffing kept his team from slipping away. The senior center had a bad case of the bricks in the second half and received plenty of criticism in the stands, from me at least. And then I looked at the box score. Nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and one turnover can not be criticized, even if they go along with a few too many missed open jumpers.
Austin Hollins is a jump-shot away from being an All-Big Ten player, and he actually has the jump-shot when the confidence is there. It just isn’t there yet. He is just as likely to make a three as he is sail it a few feet wide right. He finished the game with 13 points, which could have been more if he was better than 4-10 from the field.
Andre Hollins will eventually be the best point guard in recent Gopher basketball history. You can see it in his size, his speed, and his definitive decision-making. Until then, he is still a freshman. He made a three-pointer and a few free-throws, but still hasn’t found his range. He is an excitable kid, and may need to calm down a bit before his game can really take it off.
Julian Welch is the steady presence that the Gophers desperately needed last season, and will need has Andre Hollins matures. He isn’t going to blow by anyone or jump over anyone. He will make smart decisions, get the occasional big basket and generally keep things under control. Five of his seven points came in the last two minutes of the game, and he picked the pocket of Bucknell twice.
Oto Osenieks had a surprisingly athletic three-point play, and then made everyone doubt he is the answer to the Gopher shooting woes. He scored only those three, and went 1-4 from the field and 1-3 from the line.
Joe Coleman was 1-3 from the field for three-point shots and had an impressive block late in the second half.
Chip Armelin still loves to shoot, throwing up six shot attempts in only 12 minutes. He finished the game with four points.
Elliot Elliason didn’t exactly look great, which is to say he looked a whole lot better than he did in either exhibition game. You can’t teach his kind of size, which he used to score a three-point play and pull in two rebounds. He is still awkward, and is not exactly intimidating, but there may be some hope after all.
Maverick Ahanmisi has the unique ability to be simultaneously in slow motion and completely out of control. He had one horrible turnover with a charge on a three on one break. One pass either way would have led to any easy dunk. Instead he plowed through the only defender around.
Andre Ingram played four minutes and had no other statistics.