Fresh off a thrilling, court-storm-inducing victory over Indiana, the Gophers kept up the intensity and cemented their status as a tournament team with a 29-point drubbing of Penn State. On a day where Tubby started all seniors on Senior Day, Minnesota dismantled the Nittany Lions in all aspects of the game. With a significant size, strength, and athletic advantage, the Gophers led wire to wire and were never really challenged. Rodney Williams also had perhaps the greatest dunk of the season.
At the outset it was unclear whether or not Penn State would actually score in the game, and didn’t record its first basket until 8:42 in first half. They went on a quick 6-2 run and even looked like they might put up a fight against Minnesota. But further horrific shooting kept the attack at bay and the Gophers never looked back, going into the locker room at half with a 34-12 lead en route to a 73-44 victory.
The blowout isn’t necessarily surprising – Penn State is awful on the road and has one of the worst-shooting teams in the country. Even Vegas had them as 16-point underdogs heading into the game. But for those that have loosely paid attention to the Nittany Lions throughout the season, they aren’t a team that often gets thumped. In fact, in their last four games they recorded a crazy victory over Michigan (their first conference win of the season) and lost their other three by single digits. In short, they are a team that can sneak up on others, and the Gophers didn’t let that happen.
Two important takeaways from this game in my mind: 1) The Gophers did not come out flat against a team they knew they could beat. After one of the more emotional games in recent memory, facing the conference dog can be a recipe for a huge letdown. But Minnesota, a team often prone to emotional swings, not only put its foot down early, but didn’t allow any breathing room for Penn State the rest of the way.
2) The Gophers shot 50 percent from the field, which is their second consecutive game where they’ve shot well. It’s been a death knell for the team when they haven’t shot particularly well from the field this season because when they have trouble getting the ball inside against a zone they are forced to rely on the outside shot. If that’s not falling then they are in real trouble. Heading into the end of the season, having confidence from the field will be incredibly important.
Now, can you nitpick a 29-point conference blowout? I think you can. Don’t get me wrong, the victory is great and I’ll take a blowout any day of the week, but it’s hard to gauge how much of a corner has been turned by looking at the team’s performance against Penn State. They blew out a bad team, which is what better teams are supposed to do, and it couldn’t have done anything but boost the team’s confidence when they need it most. My biggest gripe, though, is uneasiness against the zone. For two games now the Gophers have faced teams that haven’t deployed a zone defense very consistently, and I’m really not sure why since it has been so effective at slowing them down at other points in the season. Penn State used it a little yesterday but mostly stayed in a man defense.
When the Lions were in the zone the Gophers were visibly uncomfortable. Their confidence in passing is diminished, they don’t move the ball as well and they have a terrible time getting it inside. The Gophers, though, were able to hit enough shots away from the basket to minimize the zone’s impact and also used their brute strength and rebounding ability to mask and deficiencies the zone may have caused. In short, my concern is that Penn State’s ineptitude might be the makeup to Minnesota’s pig of an offense against the zone. Did they execute? Absolutely they did, and they should get credit for it. But a majority of their success came against a man defense, where they’ve fared extremely well this year.
However, Tom Crean admitted that Indiana hadn’t game-planned very well for the Gophers and Penn State probably isn’t the best barometer to see where Minnesota’s offense stacks up these days. I’m loving the current success, but I won’t be entirely convinced they’ve turned the corner until we see them face a decent zone for the majority of the game. And that’s not likely to happen against Nebraska.
But, that’s a discussion for another day. The Gophers notched their 8th conference win, which further guarantees their classification as a tournament team. And with two more winnable games coming up to end the season, Minnesota is in prime position to get to 10-8 in the conference. This would likely put them at 6th in the conference where they would face either Nebraska or Northwestern in the first round of the B1G tournament and (hopefully) get them to a five- or six-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As unlikely as it seemed even a week ago, thing are actually looking up for the Gophers.
- Tubby started a lineup of all seniors for Senior Day, which consisted of: Trevor Mbakwe, Julian Welch, Rodney Williams, Andre Ingram and Austin Hollins. It was a strange lineup to be sure, but it was effective initially as seniors accounted for the team’s first 13 points (of which Welch had 7).
- And speaking of Welch, it was great to see him contribute on a bigger scale. We all know that he is capable of contributing, but it’s certainly been a tough senior season for him. Against Penn State, though, he played (almost) a season-high 24 minutes, scored a season-high 10 points and dished out a season-high 7 assists. All this without a turnover. In the press conference after the game Tubby said that he was pleased with his performance and now has greater confidence in Welch going forward. This is good news as the Gophers are in desperate need of someone in the backcourt who can come off the bench and contribute as a 6th or 7th man by handling the ball. Maverick Ahanmisi doesn’t count.
- Rodney Williams moved back the SF position, where he excelled. After struggling for three straight games with a shoulder injury it was good to see him back on the court in extended minutes with confidence.
- Trevor Mbakwe, amid a Senior Day blowout, attempted his first-ever career three pointer. While his form was great and it looked good going up, it just didn’t fall.
Oh, and there was this: