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I was excited for Friday’s game against UCLA for plenty of reasons. Of course, it was the fact that the Gophers were in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. They were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage with a chance to redeem a season that fell well short of expectations once again. People were picking them en masse to upset one of the game’s most-storied programs. I was definitely excited for all of that.

But as a college basketball and Gophers nerd I was interested in some less obvious story lines. Like, would playing an entire season in the nation’s best conference truly pay dividends? Would running the gauntlet of playing the best teams in the game night in and night out make playing a Pac-12 contender seem like child’s play? How motivated would the team be after ending the season on such a sour note? How would they hold up in the national spotlight with the nation at large picking them to pull off an upset? These were the things I was most curious about.

Needless to say, the Gophers came to play, and they played hard for 40 minutes. We’d seen them show up that inspired only once in the past seven games (Indiana) and their confidence was palpable. In fact, it felt like the early season against Michigan State and Illinois where shots that went up FELT like they were going in, instead of the opposite.

In short, the Gophers played like we know they’re capable of. We know they can put up 80+ points in game; we know Andre Hollins can explode for 28 points on any given night; we know that Austin Hollins can be dangerous from the outside; we know the Gophers can harass teams on defense to the point where they’re just a shell of themselves by the end. What we haven’t seen often, though, is all of this coming together in a single game, and it was exciting to see the team come together at one of the most important times of the year to get it done.

Honestly, I was worried the Gophers weren’t going to be able to handle the pressure of being favored in a big game or care enough to put forth the effort necessary to topple someone like UCLA. It’s not like this team hasn’t rose to the occasion multiple times this season, but I also don’t equate “Minnesota Gophers” with “clutch prime-time performances.”

Of course, I also didn’t anticipate UCLA being such a mess of a team, either. Seriously, it’s like the Bruins and Gophers were separated at birth and raised in different time zones. Playing them was what I imagine playing the Gophers is like for our opponents. They were turnover prone, settled for bad shots, got into foul trouble and couldn’t figure out how to attack a zone. In short, their problems were the same ones that Minnesota faced often during the season. And their bench was so short that the Gophers had them worn down by the end, which allowed them to stretch the lead to an insurmountable level.

It was one game against a team that is obviously facing internal strife and was missing one of its best players, but it was the biggest win for the Gophers program since 1997, so there is no point in minimizing it. We’ve followed the Gophers all season and we know that they’re just as likely to knock off Indiana or Memphis as they are to lose to Northwestern or Nebraska, so a win over UCLA, in the NCAA Tournament no less, isn’t something to take for granted. This tournament is what the team plays for all year; getting a win cannot be overstated.

Now the Gophers must face the Florida Gators, who knocked off the Northwestern State Demons in the first round. Again, I’m curious to see how the Gophers match up against the Gators, who have had their share of strange losses. Will the Big Ten season continue to pay dividends? We’ll know in short order.

Notes/Observations:

  • Tubby Smith’s decision to deploy a zone defense the entire game was perhaps the most important factor of the victory. UCLA was obviously unprepared to face a zone, and they never looked comfortable during the game. I’ve been critical of Smith’s offensive approach to the game, but his bread and butter is defense, and that definitely showed through against UCLA.
  • How interesting was it to watch a Gophers game that was reffed by non-Big Ten officials? They were overwhelmed by the physicality and called a horrifying amount of fouls in the early going. Of course, this worked to Minnesota’s advantage because UCLA only had a 7-man rotation and they quickly got in foul trouble.
  • It might be safe to say we’ve lost Rodney Williams, which is too bad. He took two early fouls and never got into a rhythm, looked disengaged and only scored four points in 17 minutes of play. It marks the third time in the last 5 games that Williams has been held to 5 points or less. His slack was picked up, but at a time of the season where there is no tomorrow, it might not be surprising to see more Eliason and less Rodney; especially if Elliott is willing to play with intensity.
  • And speaking of Elliott, it’s great to see him so engaged; he really gets the team fired up and he’s fun to watch. Offense hasn’t been his strong suit, but he’s certainly shown growth, and he went 3-3 from the field. And his passing continues to amaze me. Seriously, for a 7-ft center he has excellent court vision and makes some great passes.
  • Can you be critical of anything in a 20-point, upset blowout in the NCAA Tournament? Absolutely. I’ll continue to say it – I don’t understand Smith’s substitution patterns. I just don’t. He plays his entire bench in the first half, which screws up the flow and leads to strange combinations of players who have no compatibility; then none of them see the floor in the 2nd half. Is this to save energy for the players? Prevent foul trouble? Then he plays Oto Osenieks for 10 minutes in the 2nd half while Joe Coleman sits on the bench. I’ll never understand how Osenieks sees so much playing time. I’m sure he’s a great character guy, but there is nothing he does that adds value over Coleman, and certainly nothing that warrants 19 minutes of playing time.
  • Austin Hollins had one of his quiet-but-deadly games, which makes him such an important factor in these types of victories. Four three-pointers, four steals, seven assists, one foul. He affected the whole game without really being noticed, and those are my favorite games to watch. He was in a huge shooting funk only a few games ago, but he seems to have recovered at just the right time.