It only took ten seconds for Golden Gopher  fans to have flashbacks to so many seasons lost to injuries, suspensions and unexpected  departures. After knocking down the first shot of the game, on the first play of the game, Andre Hollins rolled his ankle, and would not return. Over the remaing 39:50, it was easy to forget that anything was missing, as Minnesota hammered the Wisconsin Badgers inside and out on the way to 81-68 victory.

With Hollins down, someone needed to step up, and several Gophers did. In the first half, it was the Mo Walker show. Wisconsin’s offense is predicated on stopping outside shooting, and with their best perimeter player injured, Minnesota had no choice but to pound the ball down low. Mo Walker took advantage of the slender Badger bigs, scoring on six straight possessions. He had a career high in the first half of the first half, and eventually finished with 18 points and 9 rebounds.

Walker’s success in the first half forced the Badgers to guard him closely, often with double teams, in the second half. While that shut down the inside scoring to a degree, it enabled Dre Mathieu, Malik Smith, and Austin Hollins open driving lanes, with Badgers interior defenders reluctant to help out.  Mathieu was stupendous, scoring his 18 points on a variety dips, drives, floaters, and even something resembling a fade away hook shot. Malik Smith showed some surprisingly good decision making, getting to the rim often, before punctuating the victory with a dagger of a three pointer with the shot clock running out in the final minute, sending The Barn into a frenzy that hadn’t quite subsided since Austin Hollins dunked over Nigel Hayes with the shot clock winding down moments earlier.

The senior guard/forward hasn’t figured out his outside shooting woes quite yet. In the second half, it didn’t matter as he didn’t attempt a single three-pointer.  Instead, Hollins returned to his more effective slashing self, making five of six shots. He also did this.

When Richard Pitino was hired, there was some concern that he would struggle in a conference dominated by great head coaches. That concern wasn’t unreasonable either. However, Pitino thoroughly outcoached Bo Ryan. With Andre Hollins hurt, and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky out with two fouls, Pitino’s insertion of Mo Walker allowed the Gophers to immediately sieze momentum, and a lead they would never relinquish. When the Badgers eventually tried to double and triple team Walker, Pitino instructed his guards to attack. While Pitino had a good game, Bo Ryan’s baffling decision to continue to play man to man defense, even without Minnesota’s most reliable three-point shooter out of the game, fed into Pitino’s hands. Daquein McNeil and Maverick Ahanmisi combined  for 27 minutes, and Bo Ryan did nothing to force them off the court.

With two wins over ranked teams in the last two weeks, the Gophers find themselves in excellent position to make the NCAA tournament. Their ability to stay on the right side of the bubble, or easily secure a tournament berth, will depend on Andre Hollins’ left ankle. Even if the MRI doesn’t turn out like we all hope, Minnesota’s back court depth should be enough to ward off another February collapse. At least we all hope so.

Odds and ends

  • On a night when several players stepped up, the most effecient player was Oto Osenieks. He didn’t miss a shot, and had a crucial tip-in late in the first half on his way to nine points.
  • One of Richard Pitino’s favorite lines this summer was about how Wisconsin wouldn’t be able to slow the Gophers down. The Badgers did slow the Gophers down, to the tune of 58 possesions instead of Minnesota’s average of 66. Of course, this didn’t matter at all, as the Gophers had the best offensive performance against Wisconsin since the Badgers lost to Ohio State in March of 2011.
  •  Until last night, the Gophers had been much more dependent on the three-pointer, with 37.5% of their field goal attempts coming from behind the three-point line. Last night, only 12.5% of field goal attempters were three-pointers, but they made four of their seven attempts.
  • If this keeps up, the Gophers will play themselves right off the bubble. They now have wins over teams ranked #3, #16, and #23 in the RPI, giving the Gophers three wins that are better than anything several bubble teams have.