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A Month of Sundays

Things continue apace for this year's Gophs. They lost big against one really good team and then handily beat two bad ones. In years (or maybe decades) past, such resolutely .500 conference play by a Big Ten team could maybe land you an eight or nine-seed in the NCAA tournament. In past years, the fact that the conference’s seventh best team could beat one of it’s top teams (as Iowa did earlier to Michigan St.) would have been a sign of depth. Not this year, though. This year, it’s a sign that the conference sucks and that it’s supposedly best teams—Michigan St., Indiana—well, they’re not so good. What I’m saying here is, unless the Gophers beat either Wisconsin or Indiana on the road (which would…not be easy) and win every other game, let’s be thinking NIT. That could be fun too. Hey, lets recap some games!

Taste the Boredom

Last Sunday, the Gophers faced Wisconsin, who turned out to be the deepest, most polished team they’d played all year. That is to say, the best at basketball. I was expecting that the energy of the rivalry (I enjoyed the “Better Dead than Red” signs—is this a subtly ironic reference to McCarthyism? the white 50’s aesthetic of which is nicely embodied in Wisconsin’s very…wholesome, plainly reactionary squad? Let’s hope) and the Gophers’ desperate need for a galvanizing win against a quality team would spur one of those noisy, franticly competitive games that Williams Arena is known for. Well, the U did show lots of effort and energy, but they were not very competitive. Wisconsin calmly exploited all of the Gophers’ weaknesses: they hit open threes when the Minnesota rotated poorly on defense and they pressured the Gophers’ guards, forcing turnovers and bad shots. Simply put, the Gophers had a terrible offensive game. They shot 36%, which is not good, not good at all. There was a moment in the second half, when the Gophers began forcing turnovers and missed shots and seemed poised to make a run. Wisconsin’s defense had begun to lose its intensity, too, and the U suddenly began getting open looks at the hoop. But they missed them all.

Since the U were so handily and blandly defeated, my favorite part of the game was the flinty, probably alcoholic (I don’t know that at all) Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s postgame press conference. Ryan is so weathered and sick-of-it-all he seemed unable to conceal his boredom at the routinely lame questions from the press corps. When asked about the importance of the Badgers’ quick start, for instance, Ryan paused and then wearily responded: “Oh…I’d like to start well, finish well and end well.” That makes sense to me.

Such Hawks, Such Hounds

Tubby responded to this poor showing by shaking up his starting lineup for the games against Northwestern and Iowa. Blake Hoffarber and Jamal Abu-Shamala replaced Lawrence McKenzie and Damian Johnson; Hoffarber even ran the point with that first unit. During that time the offense flowed pretty well and he was even able to find some open looks of his own—color me intrigued. This change partially resulted in two authoritative wins for the Gophers. The Gophers had their best offensive showing of the year in their 20-point win at Northwestern, scoring 92 points on 57% shooting; they followed this up with one of their better defensive games, a 63-50 home win over Iowa this Saturday.

Despite forcing 21 Iowa turnovers, the Gophers were never really able to get a commanding lead and even found themselves down 42-41 with 11:16 remaining. Basically, there were two reasons for this. First, the U continued their pesky habit of leaving three-point shooters wide open. Second, the Gophers struggled to score, missing lots and lots of open shots, particularly inside (nothing new there). Coach Tubby (sounds like a dance hall reggae DJ) finally contained Iowa’s hot shooting and put some points up by employing his smallest lineup of the season—Nolen, Hoffarber and McKenzie in the backcourt, Coleman and Johnson at the forward spots—for much of the first half and the final nine minutes of the second. I think that small lineups are generally awesome—all that running and jumping and shooting—and this one seemed to work both aesthetically and practically. It allowed Tubby to play his two best defensive players (Nolen and Johnson) and also his most dangerous shooters (McKenzie and Hoffarber). And he could get away with this because, despite having some size, Iowa scores inside even less inside than the Gophers. From that point on, the Gophers clamped down on Iowa’s shooters and also generated their smoothest offense.

The Gophers outscored the Hawkeyes 21-9 in the time after Iowa briefly took the lead and Al Nolen was probably the biggest reason. Nolen broke out of his little injury-induced slump and had probably his best, most complete game of the year. He scored 11 points on 4-6 shooting, including two huge late threes. He dished out eight assists against only two turnovers, making better decisions with the ball than in any other game so far. He was customarily frenetic on defense; he had three steals and four defensive rebounds and his aggressive ball denial played a big part in two Iowa shot-clock violations. When asked, after the game, about the techniques that allow him to so disrupt opposing ballhandlers (and inspire Tubby to call him possibly the best ball defender he’d ever coached), Nolen said simply, “I watch the waist and wait for ‘em to cross over.” Sounds pretty easy right? I think it also probably helps to be blindingly quick but, y’know, Al was being modest.

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