We may never know what caused Wednesday’s second half meltdown, and it would be best if we never did. It could have been the first road game, choking under pressure, growing pains for a team still integrating four new players, or maybe the distraction from Daquain McNeil’s arrest and suspension caught up. Maybe it was all of those at once. Hopefully it was at least one of those, because if it was something other than an aberration, the once promising season could become long and arduous very quickly. Luckily, the Gophers won’t have to wait long to try to get back on track.
In the third place game of the N.I.T. the Gophers will play the Georgia Bulldogs, who lost to Gonzaga in much the same way that the Gophers lost to Louisville in Puerto Rico. They only lost by 12, but trailed by at least three possessions for the final 37 minutes of the game. It was Georgia’s second game against a non-horrible team, and their second loss of the season. Both Georgia and the Gophers still have a chance to earn their way into the NCAA tournament with strong conference seasons, and Friday’s game probably won’t determine either teams tournament fate. It will, though, determine if a merely good, or great, conference season will be necessary to play meaningful post-season basketball.
A lot went wrong against St. John’s, and when things are going wrong everywhere, attacking the rim is often the best solution. However, St. John’s has the best shot blocker in the country, and is the 11th best shot blocking team in the country so far this season. The outside shots weren’t falling, the lane was essentially a no-fly zone, and the result was hard to watch. Georgia is also a decent shot blocking team, ranking 29th in the country, but they are a bit undersized with no one taller than 6’8” and two-point defense ranking 117th in the country, suggesting that the Gophers should find room to operate, particularly if Mo Walker can establish position against the Bulldog front line, which will be at least 3 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than Minnesota’s starting center. If the Gophers can get some easy baskets inside, they might finally give their outside shooters enough space to take a good shot.
Lost among the unforced turnovers, bad shot selection, and baffling decisions so far this season is that Minnesota’s defense is better than expected, and might be good enough to carry the team if the offense can ever figure things out. The Gophers are still forcing turnovers at a high rate, blocking a lot of shots, and are keeping drivers out of the lane. St. John’s comeback was tortuously long, but it only took so long because the Gophers kept forcing tough shots and turnovers, at least when St. John’s wasn’t dunking after Minnesota’s own turnovers. Georgia’s offense is strikingly similar St. John’s. So far this season, they can’t shoot threes, and don’t commit turnovers. Minnesota will probably force them to commit more turnovers than usual, and should limit their outside shooting. If that can happen, the offense might just do enough to win a game.
College basketball seasons are long, and thanks to conference tournaments, they are never over until they are over. Bad non-conference seasons can be overcome by good conference seasons. Horrible starts in the conference season can be overcome by great finishes. We also know that great non-conference seasons and great starts in the conference season can quickly evaporate into nothing by the end of February. One would only need to look back to January 22, 2011. The Gophers won at Michigan on that date. The Wolverines fell to 1-6 in the Big Ten, and the Gophers improved to 4-3 in conference play. By the end of that season, the Gophers didn’t even qualify for the N.I.T., while Michigan was three points shy of the Sweet 16. That Michigan team left themselves little margin for error, and were one bad game away from digging a hole too deep to climb out of. The Gophers aren’t at that point yet, but if they lose to Georgia, all that climbing will have to be during Big Ten play, and the Gophers haven’t had a winning Big Ten record in a decade.