After dropping three straight games to three very beatable teams, the Gophers came into their showdown with Indiana desperately needing a win. It wasn’t yet a “must-win” game, but more of a “need to win”. The conference standings had become congested in the middle, and the Gophers had dropped many opportunities to separate themselves from the pack. But behind an amazing game from Drizzy Mathieu, dominance down low from Mo Walker, and some terrific halftime adjustments, Minnesota upended the Hoosiers to protect their home court and take home 66-60 victory.
The story of the game, once again, was Deandre Mathieu, who has found himself in the spotlight for both good and bad play this year. This time, though, he was “nearly flawless”, in the words of Richard Pitino. Mathieu scored 16 points (10 of which came in the 2nd half), dished out 5 assists and, most importantly, only turned the ball over 1 time. For a player that can fall victim to playing a bit too hard, seeing his performance come together in the form of restraint was great to see. But he also knew exactly when to play aggressively. And when the game was on the line he cut up Indiana’s man-to-man defense and hit a tough layup to ice the game.
The Mo Walker turnaround continued in fantastic fashion as the big man racked up 14 points and 8 rebounds (5 of which were offensive) in 26 minutes, while providing a consistent scoring presence in the paint for the Gophers. Elliott Eliason was again only mildly effective, and Walker was able to step right in and assert himself as a post presence. His 14 points marks the fourth time in the last five games that Walker has scored in double figures, while he played his second-most minutes of the season.
But the game was far from an open-and-shut victory for the Gophers, who were outplayed in the first half as Indiana had its way with the Minnesota zone defense. Pitino appeared to make some halftime adjustments, however, and rather than abandoning the press, he switched to a man-to-man defense, which turned the tables. Much has been made about the weak Minnesota defense, which ranks last in the conference, but after switching schemes, the Gophers actually looked competent, and it was clear that the Hoosiers were out of their comfort zone. The Gophers forced 16 turnovers in the game and held Yogi Ferrell, the conference’s leading scorer, to only 4 points in the second half.
But back to Walker. His output further reinforces the transformation we’re seeing from the junior forward. Obviously his offseason weight loss was a big story, but it wasn’t until the past handful of games that we’ve truly seen him become a different player. It’s almost like night and day. Where Walker used to be tentative on the block and weak with his hands, he is now getting great position and putting himself in position to score much more easily. And his footwork has improved to the point that once he receives the ball, he’s only one quick move to the basket. While he’s not nearly the defensive presence that Eliason is, he’s showing more offensive firepower and showing that he’s a force to be reckoned with on any given night. It’s safe to say his growth as a player is more trend than mirage at this point.
The victory gives the Gophers some much needed breathing room, which they had previously squandered in losses to Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue. With 7 games to play, the Gophers have opponents that are pretty beatable – Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State, with four games that will be fairly difficult to win. But to remain in the NCAA Tournament discussion, the Gophers can’t afford to drop winnable games, something they’ve become frighteningly adept at doing. Hopefully the win over Indiana is a sign of things to come.
- Charles Buggs played for the first time in more than two months and saw his first Big Ten conference action, racking up a single assist in two minutes. It’s unlikely that this is a sign of things to come, though, as his entrance seemed to come as more of a statement from Pitino when the Gophers were dogging it.
- Pitino switched up his starting lineup for the first time this season (with everyone healthy, that is), starting Joey King over Oto Osenieks. Osenieks went scoreless for the second game in a row and, honestly, King is simply playing better at this point. It will be interesting to see if this is a permanent switch or if Pitino elects to go with the hot hand game-to-game.
- After seeing minimal playing time for the first half of the season, Daquien McNeil has elevated himself to backup point guard status. Essentially replacing Maverick Ahanmisi in the rotation, McNeil has now played 10 minutes or more in his last five games, while Ahanmisi hasn’t played in two games.