Some will focus on the ugly, some will focus on the win, and those who were there just hope the rest of the games are more entertaining. The Golden Gophers beat the Fairfield Stags 67-57 for their third straight double-digit win, but the 43 combined turnovers, 20 combined missed three-pointers, and 53 free-throws never allowed much flow to develop, and did little for the reputation of Big Ten basketball. I blame Eddie Hightower.
The good, no great news is that the Gophers do have three double-digit wins over decent teams, two of whom will likely make the NCAA tournament. They have not played anywhere close to their potential, are clearly still learning to work together, and they keep on winning. I actually expected the Gophers to lose to Fairfield, and I would have called you crazy if you told me the Gophers would win because of excellent free-throw shooting and good three-point defense, but that is exactly what happened.
Tubby Smith, showing that an old coach can learn new tricks, or at least abandon them, seems to have finally realized that with Ralph Sampson III’s height and instincts, Trevor Mbakwe’s never-ending hustle, and Rodney William’s freakish leaping ability, there is absolutely no reason to double the post every time an opponent gets the ball inside. Not doubling the post allows the perimeter defenders to stay in the general vicinity of their men, and the open three-point opportunities have dried up. The Stags came into Thursday’s game shooting 40% from deep, but made only 2-16 three-pointers. The Gophers were back to their old bricking ways themselves making two of eight, both by Oto Osenieks.
I could bore you with some sort of general review of the game, except I have little interest, and neither do you, of describing the multitude of ways that a turnover can occur, including forgetting to run, forgetting to stop running, forgetting to pass, forgetting to catch, falling over, passing to no one, passing to three people, and forgetting that even though Ralph Sampson III runs like a gazelle, he also catches like one and has hooves. The majority of these turnovers aren’t a major cause for concern, at least not yet. These were due to a lack of communication (Maverick Ahanmisi passing to Trevor Mbakwe who was setting a screen two feet away), a momentary lapse of consciousness (how else to explain Austin Hollins literally forgetting to catch the ball), or not realizing that some players have limitations (Rodney Williams has a 40 inch vertical, not 60 inch). With experience and time, things will get better.
A typical game sequence included a Fairfield foul, two made Gopher free-throws, a missed Fairfield three-pointer, a Gopher rebound, a Gopher turnover, a Fairfield missed three-pointer, a Gopher rebound, a Fairfield Foul, and two made Gopher free-throws. For the sake of variety, there was an occasional lane violation thrown in.
Because of the lack of flow, many fouls, and frankly broken offense for both sides, it was essential for the Gophers to make free-throws, and they did to the tune of 27-31, led by Trevor Mbakwe’s 16-18 performance. He likely won’t be an 89% shooter on the year, or even an 80% shooter, though it is clear he is better than last season’s 63%.
Who did what?
Trevor Mbakwe was obviously the start of his show, with free-throw shooting of all things. If his much-improved free-throw shooting is for real, he will need to be in the Big Ten player of the year conversation. More importantly, it is a few extra points on the board each game, maybe enough to give the Gophers a win in close games, or reducing a three possession game to a two possession game in the final minutes. His 10 rebounds along with his 16 free-throws and a couple of dunks gave him his 20-10 game.
Ralph Sampson III continues to struggle making decisive moves around the basket. When he is merely reacting to a situation, like his quick jumpers around the free-throw line, he can be a very good player. If he catches the ball in the post without already having an idea of what he wants to do, he’ll more often than not turn the ball over. He also has to find a way to get more rebounds. Two rebounds in 28 minutes isn’t acceptable for a guard, let alone a senior with NBA aspirations.
Andre Hollins had his best game as a Gopher and the first double-digit scoring game of his young career. He can be truly explosive in attacking the rim and his fade away shots off the dribble are nearly impossible to defend. He has got to find a way to take care of the ball though.
Rodney Williams actually had the best assist to turnover ratio (3-0) in an ugly game. His biggest contribution came on the defensive end holding Rakim Sanders to 14 points on very inefficient 6-16 shooting. Sanders was an interesting match-up outweighing Williams by at least 20 pounds (if Sander is actually 210 pounds as he is listed, I’m actually seven feet tall).
Austin Hollins had a dreadful start to the game with four turnovers, seemingly all in the first few minutes of the game including the aforementioned forgetting to catch the ball incident. Then he settled down enough to score eight point including two emphatic dunks, one of which landed him the Sports Center top 10.
Julian Welch’s ankle is hurting him more than he is letting on, or he is struggling a lot to adjust to the better level of competition. He is a strange player, because he generally looks like he knows that he is doing, but then he’ll play 14 minutes, not take a shot, and only have one assist and two turnovers. He needs to do something, anything on offense, or the Gophers will be playing four on five.
Chip Armelin thrives on free-flowing games, and the drudgery didn’t give him an opportunity to get involved in his scoreless nine minutes of action.
Joe Coleman has a game a lot like Armelin, and he also struggled to find a flow in eight scoreless minutes.
Andre Ingram missed both shots he attempted.
Elliott Eliason had what can actually be described as coordinated put-back basket.
Oto Osenieks is the best shooter the Gophers have, and as the best shooter, he needs to shoot. He was the best player on the court not named Mbakwe in his 12 minutes of action, scoring eight points and making Minnesota’s only three-pointers of the night. He seems to be looking for perfect shot opportunities, and should let a few more fly when he has room.
Maverick Ahanmisi was never supposed to be more than a serviceable back-up point guard as a junior or a senior. He is a year ahead of schedule. Due to a strange clause in his scholarship, he is required to make an incredibly awkward turnover in the open court every game. Once that was out of the way, he played well, including a nice basket on a pick and roll.