An ugly win is still a win

Tonight’s match-up against Central Michigan had the potential to be a trap game, and for the first 18 minutes, that potential was in danger of being realized. Eventually, Minnesota shrugged off its sluggishness long enough to win 77-59. The Gophers came out flat, stood still on offense, weren’t careful with the basketball, and forced Tubby Smith to make a line change a few minutes into the game. The next five didn’t fare much better, as Central Michigan hung around for much of the half until Spencer Tollackson hit a perfect 35 foot three point shot as time expired. It was only one of the many occasions when the Chippewa’s couldn’t stop Tollackson.

Carrying the team with his inside scoring and open court dunking, Tollackson finished the game with 14 points on 5-6 shooting (including the three pointer), six rebounds (three offensive), two blocks, and two steals. Most importantly, he stayed out of foul trouble, while forcing the Chippewa big men (and oh were they big, more later) into frustrated fouls. The Lawrences (McKenzie and Westbrook) were also in double figures with 11 and 10 respectively, both on poor shooting nights.

There are bad basketball teams, there are last year’s Gophers, and then there are this year’s Chippewas. In my previous post, I mentioned the improvement Central Michigan made last year. Rather than being the first step in a rebuilding process, last year’s thirteen wins may have been a fluke. I have a hard time believing that Central Michigan will win more than five games. The problems with the team are clichés out of a sports movie (before the new coach, new player, or inspiring injury or illness leads to a championship, close but inspiring loss, or new found confidence or self-awareness). Giordan Watson, their best player, clearly does not trust his teammates. On several possessions he dribbled nearly the whole possession only to make an ill-advised drive to the basket or take a jump shot. He finished with 22 points, but took 20 shots and also committed four turnovers. A 9-20 shooting night might not look that bad, until one considers what the rest of his teammates did. The most shots attempted by any other Central Michigan players was 6. The rest of the Chippewas shot the ball a combined 29 teams. Joining Watson are the unconventional power forward (generously listed 6’3″ 270 lbs) and former Purdue Boilermaker Nate Minnoy; hot headed point guard Jeremy Allan who fouled out on a personal and technical foul combination after only eight minutes; Marko Spika, a whining, crying immensely untalented European big man; and Justin Blevins, who threw what appeared to be an intentional forearm at Damian Johnson and Kevin Payton on the same play. Ernie Ziegler, the Chippewas’ coach, clearly has his work cut out for him, especially with the team showing no interest in listening to him. The dreadfulness of Central Michigan was clearly the deciding factor of the game. Although, in an alarming development, they somehow turned the ball over less than the Gophers. At least the Gophers doubled their assist total over the Iowa State game.

On a random side note, I was selected the “Fuel it up fan of the game” because I remained standing during the time outs. I didn’t have the heart to tell the fan of the game selector that I wasn’t standing because of my undying dedication to all things maroon and gold, but because I have been mostly sedentary since Wednesday afternoon and didn’t want to sit anymore. However, I’ll take the $50 gift card, and especially the opportunity to stand on the court and hear Dick Jankowski say my name. And they say dreams don’t come true.

Who did what:

  • Dan Coleman played soft again on offense, but had eight rebounds to go along with nine points. He added two blocks and two steals. Unfortunately, Coleman had five of the Gopher turnovers.
  • Jamal Abu-Shamala made his free throws.
  • Spencer Tollackson dominated again. You probably won’t ever see him make a 30 some footer buzzer beater and have a break away dunk again.
  • Lawrence McKenzie also made his free throws and didn’t do much else.
  • Lawrence Westbrook played much better than last Tuesday, and pulled down a very impressive rebound over several players, many of whom are on his own team.
  • Al Nolen continues to not play like a freshman. He led the team with 5 assists and committed only one turnover while playing solid defense.
  • Kevin Payton may finally have had his plug pulled. He didn’t start and played only 10 minutes. He did start the second half, but immediately turned the ball over on an ugly attempt at a behind the back dribble. It turns out the Payton has a little bit of foot-speed, but is completely out of control when moving faster than a snail’s pace. Three points, three personal fouls, and four turnover aren’t good enough on any team, even Central Michigan. He couldn’t even draw a foul on an intentional quasi-punch.
  • Jonathan Williams made both shots he attempted, pulled down four rebounds, and didn’t foul anyone. This is very encouraging.
  • Blake Hoffarber played his best game as a Gopher, making three three-pointers.
  • Damian Johnson was once again a solid contributer, making a fall away sweeping layup despite being intentionally fouled.
  • Ryan Saunders: modest suit, ugly tie.
  • Travis Busch gets his fashion advice from Saunders.
  • The crowd showed up, including future Gopher Paul Carter, although there were plenty of new (and much older) faces in The Barnyard. It was good to see the upper deck full for a non-conference game.

Though hardly anyone could watch the game because hardly any ISP’s carry ESPN360, there are at least video highlights of tonight’s game available here.

Gophers try to avoid trap game against Central Michigan

*

On Tuesday the Gophers won their first non-conference road game since 2005, and this coming Tuesday face an even tougher test at Florida State. Sandwiched between these two big games are the lowly Central Michigan Chippewas, who despite their mediocre basketball skills, were fortunate to keep their team’s nickname thanks to their strong relationship with the Native American community. Well at least they have that going for them, because this is not their basketball team’s year.

Central Michigan expected to be a much better team this year. Last year, the Chippewas were 13-18 (compared to 4-24 the previous year), still not great but at least semi-respectable. With four returning starters, including PG Giordan Watson, a 15 ppg scorer so far this year, things were looking up. Then the season started, and it was all down hill from there. A loss to Missouri was acceptable, but after losses to Central Missouri and Niagara, last year’s improvement is a distant memory.

The Gophers should run away with tomorrow’s game, but a couple of factor might keep things close. As already mentioned, tomorrow’s game falls between two much more important games. For a team that doesn’t have much big game experience, they might easily look ahead to Florida State. Even if next Tuesday’s game was against a team prefaced with Middle, Central, or Northern, the calendar could work against the Gophers anyway. Thursday was of course Thanksgiving, and basketball may not have been in the forefront of the players minds. The student section won’t be at its fullest or loudest, and the rest the fans will be recovering from the estimated 4,500 calories that the average person consumes each Thanksgiving. Tubby Smith emphasizes discipline and preparation. Through no fault of his own, tomorrow could be a difficult day to get a team fired up to play some MAC also-rans.

Despite all this, I am picking the Gophers to win 72-58 in a game not all that different than Tuesday’s win against Iowa State. Of course, a blow out featuring a Busch-Hoffarber out of bounds baseball pass would be nice to see.

*Yes, that is a picture of a gopher trap.

So much to be thankful for in Tubby Smith’s first recruiting class.

The early signing period has ended with a bang for the Gophers. Devoe Joseph, widely regarded as the best high school basketball player in Canada (which might be comparable to the best high school hockey player in Brazil) has signed a letter of intent to play for the Gophers. When the final recruiting rankings come out, expect to see the Gophers in the top ten.

What better way to escape annoying family members than to watch a few youtube clips, even if they only last a minute.

Colton Iverson

Ralph Sampson III

I know there have to be videos out there of the other three recruits, Joseph, Devron Bostick, and Paul Carter, but I can’t find them. Send them this way if you know where to look.

Tollackson, McKenzie help Gophers hold off Iowa State

Last year the Gophers would have lost this game. At any point during the Dan Monson era, the Gopher’s could have lost this game. But it is a new year with a new coach and new toughness, and the Gophers are 2-0 already with a road win under their belts.

The final score, 68-58, was not indicative of how close the game actually was, or maybe after watching so many seemingly unloseable turn into disasters, it only seemed excruciatingly close.

The seniors, specifically Spencer Tollackson and Lawrence McKenzie, led the way. While Iowa State fab freshman Craig Brackins was putting up career numbers, Tollackson in his now familiar agile but slightly awkward swirling style, kept pace. Iowa State was helpless when Tollackson got the ball inside. Jamal Abu-Shamala was able to exploit an attempt at fronting Tollackson with a soft lob pass over the defense that led to a wide open layup. In the second half, it was all McKenzie. He did not start, but was able to run the floor and play solid defense. However, he still had not found his outside shot, most likely due to missing several practices due to a lingering groin injury. In the second half he found his shot, scoring 15 of his 20 points, and hitting several three pointers, one of which bounced high off the rim before rolling in.

Though Tollackson and McKenzie had big games, the real determining factors were buried deeper in the box score. As was the case in previous games, the Gophers held on to the ball, and crashed the offensive boards. Despite poor shooting and lots of fouls the Gophers led at half time, by volume alone. If you take enough shots, making all of them isn’t as important. The Gopher guards continued to rebound beyond their size, particularly on the offensive end.

Most importantly, the Gophers displayed a toughness that will be a key to a successful season. They were able to hold on during a 15-3 run between the end of the first half and the first few minutes of the second half that resulted in a six point Iowa State lead. But each time Iowa State made a run the Gophers buckled down defensively. The Gophers were clearly more prepared to play a close game, even though this was their second game of the season compared to Iowa State’s fourth.

Overall, this was an impressive win that shows that the remarkable improvement over last year may be due to more than inferior competition. The Gophers faced their first real test of the season, and passed with flying colors.

Who did what?

  • Dan Coleman looked flat out horrible in the first half on both ends of the court, missing wide open jumpers and allowing Craig Brackins to score out will. In the second half he really stepped up, especially defensively, and also made a few nice inside shots. He will need to start stepping it up once the Big 10 season starts.
  • Kevin Payton did nothing, literally. No shots, no field goals, no points, no free throws made, no free throws attempted, no steals, though he did add a whopping assist, block, two rebounds, and a foul. His lack of out put, and more importantly foot speed, are a severe liability. It is not a coincidence that every Iowa State run took place while he and Abu-Shamala were on the floor at the same time.
  • Spencer Tollackson was dominant, shooting 8-12 from the floor. However, he faced foul trouble that luckily proved not to be a factor.
  • Lawrence Westbrook struggled in what amounted to his first college road game of consequence. He was able to make two free throws in the last minute of the game to seal the win, not an easy thing to do after sitting on the bench for most of the game.
  • Jamal-Abu Shamala had a nice assist and made a three pointer, but was otherwise a non-factor.
  • Lawrence McKenzie led the Gopher resurgence in the second half making threes, playing tough defense, and chasing down seven rebounds, which tied for the team lead with Damian Johnson.
  • Jonathan Williams threw his weight around, perhaps a little too much. He made both shots he attempted, but picked up a quick three fouls including one about 35 feet from the basket…not the best decision he has ever made.
  • Damian Johnson continues to display amazing athleticism, and had the play of the game with a blocked three pointer and dunk. He finished with five points, seven rebounds, and two blocks. He could have had more points if not for a few play where he was out of control. At times he looked like a lanky Rico Tucker. Luckily, the areas where he needs to improve can be improved, while the areas he excels at can’t be taught. He should continue to improve this year.
  • Travis Busch played, but the Gopher might have been better off if he didn’t.
  • Blake Hoffarber continues to play hard, but is still obviously a freshman. Wide open off balance fade-away 18 footers just aren’t necessary.
  • Al Nolen once again played the most minutes at point guard. Despite not filling the score book, he played great defense as usual (5 steals!) and effectively ran the offense. He’s also an impressive rebounder, especially since he is often the shortest player on the floor.
  • Ryan Saunders may have been at the game, but I am beginning to wonder if he is actually on the team or just likes to hang around the team wearing expensive suits.

If you are reading this you can watch the Iowa State game

I was already to complain about Comcast for not being able to watch tomorrow night’s game. After all, the are responsible for genocide, global warming, political repression in Pakistan, and worst of all, the demotion of Pluto, so why would’t they be responsible for the Gophers not being on TV. Forutunately, or maybe unfortunately, the Gophers will not be on TV not because of Comcast vs. the Big Ten Network. It seems they won’t be on TV because only local Iowa stations will be showing the game.

All is not lost, though. You can watch the game tomorrow from the comfort of your own computer. It will cost you $10, but you won’t have to set foot inside the state Iowa. This is a good thing.  Click here for more information.

Iowa State game marks end of Veteran’s Day Hiatus

Oh those college basketball schedulers. After almost a week and half break, perhaps resulting from Veteran’s Day (or some other more obscure holiday that I am not aware of) the Gophers play Iowa State on Tuesday. Clearly, this is the biggest game so far in Tubby Smith’s career at Minnesota, and given the lack of success in recent year’s, this may be the most important game since the Gopher’s NIT loss to Cincinnati a few years back. The Gopher’s performance in Ames will tell us a bit more about how far this team has come, and what we can expect for the rest of the season.

If the Gopher’s play like they have so far this season, they have a very good chance of winning. Iowa State’s best player Wes Johnson is injured though he may still play. With Johnson’s impact on the game most likely diminished substantially, the Gopher’s lack of size (and fouls to give) may be less of a factor.

The Gophers should have won last year’s match-up, but as was so often the case, they blew a late lead and lost. However, Mike Taylor, who simply took over the second half of that game, has had all sorts of problems take over his life. He was kicked off the team after stealing cold medicine from Cub Foods.

Hilton Coliseum is a tough place to play (though may be quieter than usual based on the availability of tickets), and Iowa State is a significant step up in competition. Al Nolen, who by now deserves to be starting, will be playing his road game with the Gophers. Tubby will has had a week to prepare. Combining all these factors, you have a recipe for what should be a very entertaining game.

My prediction you ask? Gopher 73-66 in a game that will be much closer than the score suggests. This is a Gopher Blog after all.

It’s been a long ten years

Minnesota’s last NCAA tournament win, and arguably the last Gopher Game that mattered, was 10 years ago. When I look back, its like it never happened, because technically it didn’t. Within a few weeks, news broke that Courtney James liked to throw phone books at his girlfriend, then the academic fraud-Monson-never quite putting it all together death spiral began. But for one glorious spring, before it all fell apart, I was in basketball heaven.