In a game that had been circled on the calendar since summer, the Gophers took on the Syracuse Orange in the opening round of the Maui Invitational for their first game against a major conference opponent. And in a contest that pitted them against a top-10 team in the nation, Minnesota was thrown into the fire to find out exactly where they’re at and what they’re made of early in the season.
In short, we might just be okay here.
The early season narrative so far has been that, while the team is 5-0 and beating up on the little guys, no one was really quite sure just how the Gophers would do against more talented teams. Would they rise to the challenge when faced with adversity, or get overpowered by a better team? In a game against one of the nation’s best teams, Monday presented a great opportunity to really benchmark the Gophers and determine what was realistic. Behind inspired play, hard-nosed defense, and timely shooting, Minnesota gave the Orange all they could handle before succumbing, but showed that, at the very least, they’re going to need to be taken seriously this year. And while the Gophers fell 75-67, they were within two points with only two minutes left and position to tie the game before key turnovers by Malik Smith and Joey King down the stretch sealed their fate.
In spite of his five turnovers, Malik Smith was the surprise star, scoring 16 points off the bench and showing that he’s capable of quickly getting the team back in the game with his lethal shooting. Smith canned four three-pointers from way beyond the arc and quickly brought the Gophers back from a double-digit deficit in the second half when things were spiraling out of control. Elliott Eliason was another key component, showing that his mere presence on the court was enough to change the game. Plagued by foul trouble throughout, Syracuse went on a quick run in the second half once Eliason picked up his third foul and nearly blew the game wide open. The lack of size definitely hurt Minnesota when he was on the bench, and was no match for the Orange attack down low without him. When he was in, however, he was a shot-blocking, shot-altering machine.
In the end, though, the Gophers made way too many unforced errors, committing 19 turnovers. Against a team like Syracuse, giving them the ball 19 times is an unaffordable gift. And foul trouble also reared its ugly head in the front court, where Eliason and King committed nine fouls. With Mo Walker on the bench, the thinness of the post players was exposed, and Syracuse took advantage quickly.
The Gophers now face Arkansas in their second game of the tournament. Getting at least one win over a major conference team is the goal in this tournament, and the Razorbacks represent a prime opportunity to make that happen.
- Elliott Eliason has got to understand his importance in being on the floor this year. In the past few years his aggressiveness down low was masked by Minnesota’s deep frontcourt, so he was able to commit fouls that came from pushing boundaries. But as one of two (sometimes one) natural post players, he can no longer afford to pick up the cheap fouls. Tonight was a clear example of his being over-aggressive, and it hurt the team. Him being on the bench diminished the team’s size on defense, but it also hurt them on offense without his passing touch. Against Syracuse’s zone, that was a death knell. Eliason will have to learn, especially in the Big Ten, that it’s okay to give up a basket if it means not picking up a cheap, unnecessary foul.
- Pitino only used seven players tonight, with King and Smith as the lone guys off the bench. That meant no Ahanmisi and no Ellenson. And, perhaps more importantly, it meant NO HOCKEY STYLE LINE CHANGES. What a welcome subbing reprieve from the Tubby era and it definitely showed in the team’s chemistry. More importantly, it might have indicated that Ellenson and Ahanmisi aren’t ready to see PT against a team like Syracuse. I won’t argue with that either.
- The team once again shot well from the free throw line, which is huge and highly satisfactory.