The post-Maui Invitational feeling around Gopher Nation could probably be characterized as optimistically disappointed. That is, after a near upset over Syracuse, a blowout at the hands of Arkansas and a near embarrassment against Chaminade, the Gophers had regressed from an inspiring squad begging to be taken seriously to one that barely got out the door of a holiday tournament with a win that featured a Division II team. We didn’t lose to the Silverswords, but Minnesota didn’t have the island experienced we envisioned. Having beaten a decent Richmond team in a true road game, the relative letdown in Maui was more of a reminder that this team might have more to work on than we thought.
Of course, then Florida State came to town, and the season is now officially a roller coaster.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I thought the Gophers would be world beaters this year; I’m hoping they find themselves as a bubble team by the end of the year. But after narrowly missing against Syracuse, I really did think they were better than people gave them credit for. And then with the stomping at the hands of the Razorbacks and being down late in the game against Chaminade, I was certainly guilty of resetting my expectations and thinking that the team had a ways to go before it needed to be taken seriously.
Heading into the game against Florida State, I had nightmares of an Arkansas repeat. The Seminoles are huge, they like to play fast and they’re physical. The Gophers had shown to be fairly ineffective down low, and relied on hot shooting to make their mark and win games. With a team coming to town that brought down VCU and narrowly missed against Florida and Michigan, I was skeptical.
Instead, the Gophers played inspired basketball; out-hustling the Seminoles, losing teeth, getting gritty baskets and controlling the game tempo. It was a complete 180 from their Maui games and, even though I kept waiting for an implosion, it never came. What’s my point? I fell into the trap of looking at this team game by game and judging them instead of letting them prove themselves over the course of many games. The season is long, and with a team like Minnesota that is still finding it’s identity, there are going to be games like the Arkansas mess where they look completely lost, and games like last night’s where they look like they pretty much know what they’re doing.
This year will definitely be up and down – more so than others – but that’s to be expected with a new coach, a new system, and new players. If they can show enough gumption to come back home and handle Florida State after sleepwalking through most of the Maui Invitational, then I’m entirely okay with enjoying the ride that is sure to follow this year in conference play.
The game against the Seminoles was fun for many reasons, but my biggest takeaway was that Pitino appears to know how to adjust and prepare his team after some hardships. The Gophers were exposed in Maui, and I really thought there was already a blueprint to beating them. Instead, Pitino had the remedy to get them to use their strengths to take down an imposing opponent. They definitely have their weaknesses, but they also proved that they can use their strengths to handle adversity and bring down a solid opponent.
Things now get easier as the Gophers face four beatable opponents at home before kicking off Big Ten play. First up is New Orleans.
- The new focus on tightening up the game was on full display in Williams Arena, where 52 fouls were called. Seriously, 52. Referees are tasked with enforcing new rules cracking down on hand-checking and physical defense, which means things that were allowed in previous years no longer work. And as players learn to adjust there are going to be plenty of fouls. Unfortunately, with Ed Hightower reffing the game, the calls were especially obnoxious.
- The Gophers turned the ball over only 6 times, which is astonishing. Ball security has been a positive in back-t0-back games now, and I can’t remember the last time the Gophers had such a low turnover rate against a major conference opponent.
- Mav Ahanmisi lost part of his tooth as part of a mad scramble for the ball in the second half of the game. He probably saw a dentist today.
- Andre Hollins was only 3-13 from the field, but he used the whistle-happy refereeing to his advantage by getting to the line 16 times. Richard said after the game that his goal from game to game is to make more free throws than the other team attempts. The Gophers nearly accomplished that against FSU, making 28 attempts to the Seminoles’ 29 total free throws.
- Charles Buggs actually got some playing time, but was largely ineffective in his four minutes.
- Speaking of ineffective, someone needs to tell Wally Ellenson that just because he’s in the game doesn’t mean he has to shoot. Watching him play the past few games, it really looks like he’s trying to make the most of minutes by forcing shots and doing things that are out of character. Instead of letting the game come to him, it’s like he’s thinking he has to make his mark in limited time and presses a bit much. It hasn’t been going well.