Holy Buford. The Gophers came into their contest against national powerhouse Ohio State with aspirations of upsetting a top-6 team, grabbing another signature win for their tournament resume and sending the Buckeyes packing for the fourth time in the last five games between the two teams at Williams Arena. Instead, Minnesota found itself on the wrong end of a 20-0 run, helplessly put Jared Sullinger at the free throw line 12 times and let William Buford run the show to the tune of 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
The Gophers came out firing in the first half and looked confident against the Buckeyes. Minnesota hit its first five shots and found itself tied 12-12 and oozing confidence. Then Tubby Smith did that thing he likes to do six minutes into the game – a line change. The starting five, sans Andre Hollins (who would be replaced moments later) were playing right alongside one of the best teams in nation and got sent to the bench like a virtual punishment. Down only three points at the time, the second line came in and promptly allowed Ohio State to exacerbate the deficit and continue what would be a 20-0 run and a death knell for the Gophers. By the time the starters made their return to the court (ice cold, mind you) to jump start the team, it was too late.
I haven’t been critical of Tubby in any regard this season, and I think he’s gotten more out of this team so far than anyone would have assumed after Mbakwe went down. That said, one of the biggest head-scratchers I’ve had with his style of coaching is this line change business. It just doesn’t make any logical sense and he hasn’t been forthcoming about why it occurs. Sure, I can see why a five-player line change is warranted when the starters come out flat or need to take a seat for one reason for another. But the line change happens every game regardless of floor execution, and last night was no different. What good comes from replacing a whole line of your best players when they are clicking better than they have in recent memory and are hanging with the best team in the conference? The reserves came in and promptly got dominated. By the time the starters returned it was far too late. Being down 20 points is an essential death blow in college basketball and while the Gophers outplayed Ohio State the rest of the way, it was too tall of a mountain to climb. The initial line change made absolutely no sense last night and put Minnesota in the losers column not more than 10 minutes into the game.
Ironically, three of the reserves – Ahanmisi, Armelin and Coleman – either didn’t see the floor again or saw extremely limited action after their first stint. In fact, it was almost as if Smith realized that the guys on the floor initially were doing very well by comparison and left them out there , and the Gophers used essentially only seven players the rest of the way. Oh yeah, and Joe Coleman didn’t score for the fourth straight game.
In terms of output for the team the brightest spots were from Rodney Williams, who had a spectacular game, Julian Welch and Oto Osenieks. Welch put up 11 points (most of which came from the free throw line) and dished out nine assists while Oto put up 10 points and grabbed four boards. It was clear that Rodney wanted the ball most of the game and knew what to do with it. He got to the basket almost with ease and shot 8-11, showing his ability to get close to the hoop. Unfortunately, the inability to contain the main Buckeye scorers didn’t give the Gophers much of an opportunity to climb back into things.
So what does this mean for the Gophers the rest of the way? How the team responds to this loss will go a long ways in determining the rest of the season. Do they look at this game and think, “wow, we played pretty well against a really tough team. I think we can do this.” Or do they take this loss as a sign that they just can’t get it done and mail it in for the rest of the season? Minnesota heads into a very winnable, almost-but-not-quite-must-win game against Northwestern where we’ll see whether they believe in themselves or not. They dominated the Wildcats in their last meeting and, when playing well, should have no trouble handling them again. But having lost three of their last four, the Gophers may be short on confidence.
The season is far from over. Two winnable games against Northwestern and Nebraska are still on the schedule. The Gophers also have two home contests in which they can add a big win against either Indiana or Michigan State. There’s also a final contest against Wisconsin in Madison. The opportunities are there, thankfully, and the Gophers have the chance to play themselves back into tournament consideration. It won’t take a lot, but they still have work to do.