Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bench Shortens As Tubby Secures #400

First off, congratulations to Orlando "Tubby" Smith for grabbing win number 400 Thursday night in Ann Arbor. It's a great achievement and we can be happy our highly-regarded coach reached that milestone as the floor commander for our maroon and gold rodents. Here's to 100 more. You're supposed to initiate a slow clap at this point in honor of OTS.

On to the game ....


Minnesota 77, Michigan 65

A new look Minnesota team came out of the locker room in Crisler Arena Thursday night with a different mindset, in the first of a sequence of must-win games for this Gophers team that is still clinging to NCAA Tournament hopes.

The Gophers don't have new uniforms and Ralph Sampson III hasn't arrived a few months early. But the changes Tubby Smith incorporated Thursday night paid dividends, even if they were somewhat overdue. The Minnesota bench was shortened dramatically. And instead of paying lip service to pounding the ball inside, the Gophers actually did it, and did it well.

Dan Coleman--who has taken heat from online pundit types and his own Hall of Fame bound coach--scored with his back to the basket early and often, showing a deft touch under the rim. Coleman wasn't perfect, but it was his best effort if you grade him on his aggression on the offensive end of the floor.

But for those who follow this team religously, the biggest news Thursday wasn't Tubby's milestone win or Coleman's offensive renaisance. The happening that will prompt the most converastion was new fangled six-man rotation.

Five starters: Lawrence McKenzie, Lawrence Westbrook, Damian Johnson, Tollackson and Coleman.

Reserve: Al Nolen

Kevin Payton didn't play (All this time I thought prayers related to sports teams, real and fantasy, weren't answered).

Blake Hoffarber, who was wowed us with his outside precision while at the same time showing us he has plenty of room to grow, played just two minutes.

Jon Williams played sparingly.

Travis Busch and Jamal Abu-Shamala played six minutes apiece. Busch only played in the second half, and A-S played a few key minutes in the first and garbage time in the second half.

Against a mostly hapless Wolverines team, the Gophers went six deep, and were mostly better off for it. At no time did Tubby go the five-in, five-out route. And while the final score might indicate it was a somewhat close game, it wasn't. The Gophers were in control throughout, and not even at the end of the game did the core group take a rest on the bench.

Aside from Abu-Shamala's six points off the bench, only starters scored. McKenzie led the way with 18, coming in large quantities in the second half when he could seemingly not miss. Coleman finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Tollackson scored 14. Westbrook, in perhaps his best offensive game this season, finished with 15.

So, while Tubby Smith might steal headlines with the new notch on his career wins belt, it was the dispersement of minutes that said the most about the journey of the 2007-08 season. This team needed a change. For one night, the change seemed to work. We'll see if it continues to unfold that way moving forward.

Up Next: The Gophers host Bucky this weekend. Uh-oh. I'm feeling that marquee win we've been waiting for!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Minnesota at Michigan First Look

It would be easy to think, now that the grueling portion of Minnesota's schedule is in the rear-view mirror, that Tubby Smith's Gophers will get back to beating up on inferior competition.

Don't bet your house on it.

Beginning Thursday night in Ann Arbor, the Gophers can begin to claw themselves out of the deep hole that they dug during a three-game stretch that, had balls bounced differently, or free throws fallen instead of clanked. But no Big Ten win, especially a road win, is going to be handed over to the Golden Gophers. Should the Gophers look past a Wolverines team that has lost to the likes of Western Kentucky, Harvard and Central Michigan, the Gophers' hopes of finishing at, near or above .500 in conference play will not be realized.

Who Are The Wolverines?:

When John Beilein took over for Tommy Amaker last off season, he surely knew it could take time to rebuild the once-proud Michigan basketball program. With a young team (that includes just two seniors who aren't difference makers) Beilein has suffered through a 5-15 start to the season.

Not surprisingly, the Wolverines are led by two underclassmen--freshman guard Manny Harris and sophomore forward DeShawn Sims. Harris has been your classic shoot-first freshman guard. He's racked up the assists and turnovers (1/1.1), but also leads the team in scoring with 16.2 per contest. Sims, meanwhile, has matured in his second year. His minutes have jumped along with his production. He leads the Wolverines in rebounding and in is a legitimate threat from beyond the arc.

While Harris and Sims are a decent one-two punch, production for the Wolverines drops off substantially after that. Ekpe Udoh is a still-intriguing 6-10 sophomore center who is still very raw, but can alter countless shots with his length in the paint. Kevin Grady is, perhaps, Michigan's point guard of the future, but Grady has seen his playing time dwindle as conference play drags on.

Those four players--Udoh, Grady, Harris and Sims--should give you a sense of what the Wolverines are: A team currently without an identity.

Five Keys For The Gophers:

1.) Create turnovers. If experienced teams like Michigan State will turn the ball over against the pressure defense, the Wolverines should be perfect victims.
2.) Attack the basket.
3.) Get out to an early lead. No sense giving a young team any confidence at home.
4.) Score in transition. The Gophers need easy baskets to win.
5.) Forget about the three game slide.

Reason For Optimism: All season, the Gophers have been able to beat the teams they should beat. This game should be no different. Michigan might be the worst team in the conference other than Northwestern.

Reason For Pessimism: The Gophers haven't put together a full 40 minutes all season. Add to that the fatigue that comes along with a three game slide and a likely yawn-inspiring road environment, and the Gophers could come out flat.

Take Five: The next five games for the Gophers are all must wins if the Gophers want to still cling to NCAA hopes. After Thursday night, the Gophers host Bucky the Badger, travel to Northwestern before hosting Iowa and Illinois. Sweeping all five might allow us to dream about a Big Ten Tournament run and a long shot at the NCAAs.

Key Player: Al Nolen. The Gophers have been at their best this season when he has been a competent floor leader. We can withstand occasional mishaps, but not the lengthy stretches of poor play he put together at Ohio State.

Prediction: I'm so very tempted to pick the Wolverines, but they are so bad, I mean really, really not good at all, that I just must pick the Gophers. The Wolverines have beaten Radford, Brown, Eastern Washington, Oakland and Northwestern. The Gophers won't be added to that list, but it will be closer than you expect. Minnesota 74, Michigan 65.

PJS Note: I'll be in meetings all day tomorrow so the typical Game Day Prep will not make an appearance before the Michigan game.

Enjoy New York, Johan

I got to know Johan Santana a little bit when I spent a summer interning for KFAN covering Twins games at the Metrodome. At that time, Santana was in the Twins' bullpen, and he was one of the more engaging personalities in the Twins' clubhouse.

I fondly remember Johan, David Ortiz and Eddie Guardado goofing around behind the batting cage, emulating the swings of some of the all-time greats. Johan was also very pleasant--and considering I was a college pup at the time, it was appreciated. And that's just one anecdote. Those of us who are Twins fans have enjoyed no larger prize over the years than to watch this maestro perform on the mound. His passion, his intensity, and most importantly, his other-worldly change-up.

So it is then that I use this space that we talk about the Gophers on a daily basis to simply say goodbye to Johan Santana, who is on the verge of joining the New York Mets. I was holding out hope that somehow, someway the Twins would find a way to pay Santana so he could someday be inducted to Cooperstown with a Twins cap on. That's not going to happen

I personally don't like the trade, considering the other packages that were reported to be on the table. But I'm not an expert on minor league baseball prospects, so I'll point you to Aaron Gleeman. If you follow the Twins and don't read Gleeman, you should. To steal a phrase from one of our favorite commenters here "He's That Good."

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Keeping Tabs On The Future: RSIII Making Waves

PJS Note: Periodically over the remainder of the basketball season I will post updates of Tubby Smith's incoming five-man 2008 class. The group has been ranked as high as 10th nationally and it is part of the hopefully golden future of Minnesota basketball.

There is no player I'm more excited about than Ralph Sampson III. And I don't even think it's because of his name. Last week, per this Scout note, RSIII had two triple-doubles to give him five games this season where he's dominated the stat sheet in that manner. In the two games, both wins, Sampson 11 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocked shots and 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 blocked shots. Other reports continue to indicate that Sampson is becoming more aggressive offensively. And his ability to thorughly own the paint certainly bodes well for his tenure at Minnesota. Along with Damian Johnson's length, we could see a very nice shot-blocking tandem for the next two years.

But Sampson last week also received the type of attention our local periodicals shower on players like Michael Floyd or Seantrel Henderson. The Atlanta Journal-Counsitution profiled Sampson in this piece titled "A quiet force inside." It's a very interesting read, and the writer quites Sampson as saying one reason he came to Minnesota was because he'd have an opportunity to bulild something with Tubby, but also because at schools like Georgia Tech or Clemson he'd have to work his way into a spot. The article also discusses how playing with two Wake Forest recruits on an AAU team helped Sampson learn to be assertive on the floor.

** We will learn a little about Devoe Joseph this weekend when his Pickering High team plays host to some of the best teams in Canada this weekend. We'll try and follow Devoe's progress.

** One that got away: Jackson, Miss., product Scottie Haralson, a 6-4 shooting guard has decided to attend Connecticut. Haralson is the same type of player that Devoe Joseph is, so Haralson likely had to look outside of Minnesota after the Canadian product picked Tubby and the Gophers.

** Devron Bostick (pictured) led a "sluggish" SWIC Blue Storm team with 22 points last weekend. Earlier in the week, Bostick put up 18 points during a win when Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was watching from the crowd. Bostick's Blue Storm team is ranked fifth in the latest NJCAA Division I poll.

** It's difficult at times to tell what we are getting with Colton Iverson. My guess would be he might be more of a work in progress. But with the departures of Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson, Iverson will likely be forced into significant action as a freshman. After scoring just five points and seeing his team held to just 28 points last Thursday, Iverson responded the next night with 23 points and nine rebouds to help his team upset a highly ranked team from Sioux Falls. Iverson was 9-11 from the floor and 5-7 from the stripe. I think that should be considered a good bounceback night.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

One Point Left On The Ice

Regardless of who you talked to Saturday night - Gopher coaches or players - all agreed, a point was missed in a 2-2 tie to Wisconsin. Instead of returning home with a split, Wisconsin moved ahead of the Gophers with a three-point weekend.

The Badgers won game one Friday, 3-1.

Minnesota led 2-0 after the first period on Ben Gordon's 9th goal on a 5-on-3 power play and a Mike Carman five-holer for his second of the season.

However, Wisconsin got four power play opportunities in a row and cashed in at 11:32 of the second period on freshman Patrick Johnson's sixth goal of the year (that's Miracle on Ice's Mark Johnson's son).

Johnson took a cross-ice pass and one-timed it past goaltender Alex Kangas, who was a split second slow in sliding over.

Johnson was involved in the equalizer as well as he fired a harmless shot at Kangas, but a tip near the net by Aaron Bendickson beat the goaltender for the 2-2 tie.

It was again another blown opportunity for the Gophers, who now have been outscored in the third period 36-18.

Blake Wheeler scored the lone goal for the Gophers on Friday. Minnesota had only 23 shots on goal - their fourth lowest total of the year. They did take 71 shots, but 25 missed the net and 23 were blocked.

* In Saturday's game, the line of Carman-Tony Lucia-Ryan Flynn was head and shoulders the best on the ice. Flynn had numerous opportunities despite being more of a defensive forward. Unfortunately, there wasn't much offense from the other three. Jay Barriball's struggles continued this weekend.

* Did you know? The past four seasons, Minnesota is unbeaten on Saturday night in Madison. They are 3-0-1. However, the Gophers are 1-3 on Friday nights.

* Minnesota currently is in sixth place with 15 points, but only is two points behind Wisconsin and Duluth for fourth place. However, Minnesota is only one point from being in ninth, currently held by St. Cloud State.

Next up is North Dakota, who has won seven straight games and has moved into second place behind Colorado College.

* Sorry about the typos in my preview - typed it up in a rush Wednesday night before leaving for the Minnesota Newspaper Convention. Sorry, I should have included the fact that I was ranking the top WCHA rivals (in my mind). We have had this discussion many times on GopherPuckLive and everybody has their favorite team to play - mine just happens to be Wisconsin.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Skid Hits Three In Loss At OSU

All you needed to watch was the first five to 10 minutes of the men's basketball game to know the Gophers didn't deserve a Big Ten road win Saturday at Value City Arena in Columbus. The Ohio State Buckeyes jumped out to an 11-0 lead and eventually led 19-3, a margin that would dwindle at times but never be overcome by a sloppy Gophers team that eventually lost 75-60.

While the Buckeyes shot well and played hard for 40 minutes, the Gophers have only themselves to blame for falling behind by such a wide margin at the beginning of the game. The Buckeyes started the game in a 2-2-1 three-quarter court press that the Gophers' starters didn't seem prepared for. No Gopher seemed ready to flash into the middle of the zone press. Minnesota guards seemed willing to dribble right into traps in the corner right across the half-court line. The Gophers either weren't ready for the press or they didn't execute their press break well.

So it was during the first ten or so minutes that the Gophers would give the Buckeyes easy baskets. As their confidence grew, OSU's outside shots from Evan Turner and Jamar Butler began to fall. Pretty soon, the Gophers were on the verge of being run out of the gym.

But give the Gophers credit for not quitting. They surely learned at Penn State that no lead is insurmountable. The Gophers did fight back, trimming the lead to 10 at halftime. Much of that can be credited to Lawrence Westbrook, who stepped up and hit three three pointers to loosen Ohio State's zone—which by the way did a tremendous job pressuring our front court.

In the second half the Gophers came roaring back. All of a sudden Minnesota was getting easy baskets off of turnovers. The Gophers pulled within 44-41 with this lineup: Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman, Damian Johnson, Westbrook and Lawrence McKenzie. But then all hell broke loose. Johnson picked up a ticky-tack foul—he eventually fouled out—and went to the bench. Minutes later Tubby sat Westbrook and McKenzie, likely for a breather, and substituted Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber.

It was at this point when the Gophers' comeback hopes were thwarted once and for all. Nolen and Hoffarber couldn't handle the perimeter defensive pressure. Inexplicably, Nolen repeatedly picked up his dribble way too far beyond the arc. With less than 10 minutes left in the half, and the margin within striking distance, it was the group led by our much-heralded freshman that gave the game right back.

Turnovers have been a boon to Minnesota's success this season, but on this night the Buckeyes at least evened the playing field—both teams committed 17 turnovers. Likewise, the Gophers battled well on the glass, losing the war on the boards 38-34. But most impressively here is the fact Minnesota was able to secure 16 offensive rebounds. Most of the time they didn't convert on second chance opportunities, but getting those chances is an obvious improvement.

And while the Gophers can surely blame themselves for a poorly played road game, that shouldn't take anything away from the Buckeyes. Jamar Butler hurt the Gophers all evening, finishing the night with 27 points and nine assists. Turner added 17, including 3-6 from three.

Dan Coleman led the way offensively for Minnesota with 14 points. Coleman was slightly better on this night of being aggressive in the paint. But in other instances he seemed to revert to his tentative self. Lawrence McKenzie added 10 points and Hoffarber and Johnson added eight. Westbrook didn't score after his three first half triples.

The loss is Minnesota's third straight after starting conference play 2-1. Now at 2-4 in the conference, the Gophers have one large mountain to climb if they want to be considered an NCAA-worthy team.

Other Notable Happenings:

** Jamal Abu-Shamala played the first three minutes of the game, picked up two quick fouls, and never returned. (I missed the first minute of the second half, so it's plausible he played the first two minutes of the first half and one in the second).

** Kevin Payton played just two minutes, and they came in the second half when Tubby Smith needed to find a defensive replacement when Damian Johnson went to the bench.

** Stealing Payton's and AS' minutes was Travis Busch, who played an energy-filled, if athletically-challenged, 13 minutes. Busch managed to grab three rebounds, an impressive feat considering Jon Williams played 15 minutes with his almost 300 pound frame and didn't pull down one board.

** Tubby Smith received his first technical of the year after Busch was clearly pushed to the ground while grabbing a rebound on the defensive end. A blind official called Busch for traveling after he tumbled to the ground. This prompted Tubby to storm down towards Thad Matta's side of the court, ripping off his glasses while he angrily gave his two cents to the zebras.

** The Gophers blocked just one shot (it went to Johnson). Meanwhile, the Buckeyes sent eight shots back. Part of the reason for this is because when the Gophers penetrated or tried to score on the interior, they either double-clutched or faded if even just slightly.

** After missing last weekend's home game against Michigan State, Al Nolen played his worst game of the year. Nolen picked up the ball far too often when he should have kept his dribble alive and seemed somewhat rattled by an OSU crowd that didn't stop chanting "air ball" at the freshman after a bad first half miss. On the night, Nolen had zero points on an ugly 0-2 from the floor, and committed three turnovers. Let's not be so hard on Nolen. This team is asking for quite a bit from him.

** Hoffarber couldn't get his shot off and finished 1-7 from beyond the arc. He forced a couple threes and was rewarded with a couple bunnies to finish with eight points.

UP Next: Minnesota's front loaded schedule finally lightens up. The Gophers head to Ann Arbor Thursday night to face Michigan, one of the Big Ten's most beatable teams.

Game Day Prep: Minnesota at Ohio State

Series: Ohio State leads series 74-46 according to Minnesota's Athletic Department.
Tip: 7 p.m central time
Television: Big Ten Network

Announcers: Mark Neely, Greg Kelser
Liveblog: Nah. Miss PJS has company coming over, and forcing them to watch the BTN will annoy enough. Having my computer in my lap might indicate just how much I don't want to be social with them.
Ken Pomeroy Scouting Reports: Minnesota, Ohio State


AP and ESPN: Both unranked
Basketball Predictions: Ohio State 7 seed, Minnesota "Just missed Cut"
Ken Pomeroy RPI: Minnesota 74, Ohio State 28
RPI Ratings: Minnesota 73, Ohio State 24
Real Time RPI: Minnesota 65, Ohio State 40
Colley Rankings: Ohio State 32, Minnesota 60

Articles and Blog Posts:

Columbus Dispatch: Smith reviving Minnesota's program. Minnesota product PJ Hill quoted throughout.

Columbus Dispatch: Buckeyes, like Gophers, could use string of wins to get into NCAA consideration.

Cleveland Plain Dealer: A look at the uneven play of OSU's European center Kosta Koufos.

Star Tribune: Myron Medcalf profiles Jamar Butler.

Gopher Nation: Predicts a 70-61 OSU win.

Down with Goldy: In "Gophers vs. Suckeyes," WWWWW predicts a Minnesota win.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gophers Look To End Skid In Columbus

When Minnesota and Ohio State meet in Columbus Saturday night, it will be a match up of two teams with very similar resumes.

Both teams have beaten foes they were supposed to beat and both teams have lost to superior competitors. The Gophers' losses have come on the road against Florida State, Michigan State and UNLV--nothing to be ashamed of losing in those environments--and at home against highly ranked Indiana and Michigan State. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' losses have come against ranked opponents North Carolina, Butler, Texas A&M, Michigan State and Tennessee. The Buckeyes (13-6, 4-2) have also lost at Purdue.

The closest thing Ohio State has to a marquee win is home-win against the very down Florida Gators. The Gophers? I'm not sure we can consider a win at Penn State to be of the quality variety.

So, when the two teams meet at 7 p.m. central time on the Big Ten Network, both teams will be looking to assert themselves as one of the best middle-of-the-pack teams in the conference.

The Buckeyes are one of the better defensive teams in the Big Ten. They lead the conference in field goal defense and three point defense. The Buckeyes are holding opponents to 37 percent shooting from the floor and just 29 percent from beyond the arc. One of Minnesota's strengths is three-point shooting (37 percent for second in the conference), but that advantage has been somewhat lessened when the Gophers have faced teams that can apply consistent pressure on the perimeter.

Ohio State also presents specific match up problems. Seven-foot freshman Kosta Koufos has been up and down during the season, but his size and athleticism presents a tough task for Minnesota's senior center Spencer Tollackson. Tollackson has the size to play with Koufos, but not the agility. Likewise, Minnesota forward Dan Coleman has the athleticism to play with Koufos but not the thickness.

But Koufos hasn't been the force on the glass he might eventually turn out to be. And that's good for the Gophers, because we saw how Michigan State (a very good rebounding team) can thoroughly embarrass Minnesota on the glass. In fact, the Buckeyes have had similar problems in the rebounding department. Aside from Koufos and senior forward Othello Hunter, the Buckeyes are equally as vulnerable on the boards.

The Buckeyes are led by senior floor commander Jamar Butler, a 6'1" Ohio product who has improved his game each year in Columbus. Using Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats, we can see that Butler is extremely efficient on offense (a rating of 122.2, a very good number for a team's workhorse) and has an assist rating that ranks in the top 30 nationally. He's not the type of guard Minnesota's pressure defense will bother. Butler has 117 assists on the year and only 44 turnovers.

Butler, Koufos and company will be coming into this game with something to prove. They've dropped three of four, having lost to Purdue, Michigan State and Tennessee in the last two weeks before beating Illinois at home Tuesday. Minnesota has a skid of its own to end, having lost two straight at Williams Arena.

To upset the Buckeyes on their floor, the Gophers will need Lawrence McKenzie to play the way he did down the stretch against Michigan State Sunday. That means he needs to put this team on his back offensively. Reports indicate Al Nolen will be available, and that's very good news for the Gophers who looked lost without the freshman in the back court Sunday.

Some keys for Minnesota:

** Control the glass. If the Gophers are even on the boards, this is a good sign.

** Force Butler and the OSU back court into turnovers. Minnesota is second in the conference in turnover margin. Ohio State is eighth.

** Dan Coleman and Spencer Tollackson need to be aggressive and take the ball to the basket. Coleman specifically needs to be aggressive and draw fouls. If they can get Koufos in foul trouble, our chances will increase.

** Control the tempo. Against quality teams the Buckeyes are playing in the mid-to-high 60s. If the Gophers are able to shoot well, it will be a good sign if the game is played in the 70s.

** Rebounding in the zone. The Buckeyes don't shoot extraordinarily well from three, so I anticipate Tubby Smith will play some 2-3 zone. The Gophers need to find men to box out if this is the case.

** Finally, consistency. The Gophers haven't played an entire game of good basketball all season. We can't win on the road against a good, if not great, opponent by playing inconsistent basketball. This means the Gophers need to limit turnovers, take quality shots (no threes please Spencer) and make good decisions in transition.

Prediction: Ohio State gets the edge with the game being in their gym. If the Gophers have a chance, they'll need to shoot much better than Ohio State's defense typically allows. But I don't think that happens. Pick: Ohio State 69, Minnesota 63.

College Football Blogger Awards Nominations

The typical pomp and circumstance surrounding the Golden Globes was relegated to a yawn-inspiring press conference this year. But as the college football blogger community readies to pat itself on the back, we're not held back by the contractual demands of writers. Nah, most of us do this for the fun of it.

So, now that one of the most upset-filled (if anti-climatic) college football seasons is behind us, the cream of the crop in the college football blogosphere have announced that nominations are now being received for the 2007 College Blogger Awards. The awards are the brainchild of the ever-entertaining bloggers at Every Day Should be Saturday, MGOBlog, Burnt Orange Nation, Dawg Sports and Rocky Top Talk.

Readers like you, and bloggers like me, are encouraged to nominate there favorite blogs and posts for recognition. You can make your nominations on this page, though I should warn that nominations are due by Sunday. My nominations for most of the awards (I had to skip a few) are below. Happy voting! Also, it should be pointed out that not all nominees from the various blogs and commenters will make the final list as official "nominees." A secret meeting will take place to narrow down the list. For your viewing pleasure, here is a list of last year's winners. This is important because the wise committee has decided against allowing repeat winners.

On to PJS' nominations.

Best Community: I'm not sure it's even close. Brian at MGOBlog, as someone once wrote to me in an email, has a vocal community the size of the Michigan football fanbase. The interaction is always entertaining to read (if occasionally depressing, like after losses to Appalachian State).

Funniest Blog: My nomination would have went to EDSBS, but because they won last year, I'm left to look elsewhere. There are certainly great options nationwide, but I'm going to stick with the Big Ten and give the nod to Black Heart Gold Pants. The drunken interviews with Ron Zook were laugh-out-loud funny.

Best analysis (Emphasis placed on statistical manipulation and well researched pieces that reveal something news): Again, no blog stands out more than MGOBlog, but Brian deservedly won this award one year ago. That said, a fine second choice is always Sunday Morning Quarterback. Very well done on a daily basis. Well researched. Well thought out.

Prettiest Blog: The best thing about blogs is they come in all shapes and sizes. I could nominate so many here, but the blog I find most attractive is Eleven Warriors, one of the many excellent Ohio State blogs. It's a simple design that uses all of its space well and isn't too loud.

The Job Award (The blog that has suffered through an embarrassing season with the most dignity): I'm going to hand my nomination here to my fellow Minnesota blogger Tom at Gopher Nation. While I was busy hammering away at Tim Brewster for his play calling and decision making, Tom remained positive (well, as much as he could). Kudos.

Best Big Ten Blog(s): We Big Ten bloggers have taken strides during the last year. We've created a bloggers group. We've fought the SEC speed stereotype. We've worked together like no other set of conference bloggers. Because of that, I'm going to nominate three excellent blogs, whose founders began the Big Ten Bloggers Group. They are Dave at Maize n' Brew, Sean at Around the Oval and Mike at Black Shoe Diaries. Not only are their blogs excellent sources of information about their team, but they also had the foresight to realize a group of bloggers might like to work together, and even have a little fun too.

Best National Blog: For me it came down to SMQ or EDSBS, but seeing as SMQ got the nod one year ago, we throw our nomination behind EDSBS.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lawrence Westbrook A Ball Hog? Hardly

Lost amid conversation of the disappointing play of three Minnesota seniors, uplifting play of two Minnesota freshman and the return of a packed Williams Arena is the performance of Lawrence Westbrook.

Westbrook came to Minnesota in a roundabout way. A high school standout from Chandler, Ariz., Westbrook seemed to be sort-of forced out of his high school team, where he was a nothing short of studly. During his junior year, Westbrook averaged more than 40 points per game and nearly 10 rebounds. He was quickly making a name for himself.

But then a newspaper blog story came out which quoted his high school coach as saying Westbrook was a "ball hog." If that wasn't enough, his coach suggested that if the New Mexico Lobos were interested, they could have Westbrook immediately. Now, that's some harshness. Here's a summary of those exchanges from the Albuquerque Tribune's Lobo's blog.

Obviously feeling unwanted, Westbrook bolted. He spent a year at Winchendon Prep and watched the scholarship offers role in. According to Rivals, Westbrook's time at prep school helped the supposed "ball hog" solidify his defensive fundamentals. When it came time to make a college choice, Westbrook had offers from Memphis, Colorado, New Mexico, Syracuse and others. The Arizona product eventually signed on with Iowa State, but then asked out of his commitment because coach Greg McDermott was recruiting other players at his position (according to the Rivals story linked above).

For someone with the reputation of a ball hog, such a decision would seem to cement said reputation. But Minnesota looked past any possible issues and welcomed Westbrook--who is a cousin of Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook--with open arms.

Now in his second season with the Gophers, Westbrook has been anything but the troubling ball hog his high school coach led many to believe he was. If anything, Westbrook has been exactly the opposite of what we might have expected. He's more of a defensive presence than an offensive one on most nights. He doesn't look to create his own shot often and is somewhat shy to shoot from the perimeter. He's strong enough that he should be able to back smaller guards down. I've never seen him do that. And he has a quick enough first step to be the type of slicing and dicing guard Tubby Smith desperately needs.

While Westbrook's defensive intensity has been admirable during Tubby Smith's first season, it's been very surprising that he hasn't matured into a scorer at the college level. Perhaps Westbrook was beating up on questionable talent as a prep in Arizona, or perhaps he hasn't quite adjusted his offensive game to this higher level, or maybe he is still bothered by the quotes given by his high school coach.

Whatever the case might be, the Gophers are likely quite pleased with his defense but might also be left wondering what exactly happened to the player that broke a 40-year record for scoring in the state of Arizona. If the sophomore is still trigger shy because of his aforementioned reputation, Westbrook needs to put that in his rear view mirror. Because what the Gophers need from him now is his ability to create and score.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Weekend Hockey Preview: Minnesota at Wisconsin

Series: Minnesota leads the all-time series 148-78-15 in a rivaly that dates to 1922.
Puck Drop: Friday and Saturday, 7:07 p.m. central time
Television: Fox Sports Net North
Announcers: Frank Mazzocco and Doug Woog

While there is an ongoing debate among Gopher fans on who truly is the No. 1 rivalry, the answer is quite simple: Wisconsin. It is a rivalry that extends all the way back to 1922.

That rivalry resumes this weekend as Minnesota travels to the Kohl Center for a pivotal two-game series among teams deadlocked for the fifth position in the standings. If either team sweeps, it clearly gives them the edge on the fifth and final home seed for the playoffs. A split and the series in four weeks in Minneapolis could be even bigger.

My rivalry rankings:
1. Wisconsin (better dead than red - it's the two biggest state schools)
2. St. Cloud State University (they got Bot Motzko - former assistant - and they have the most annoying fans)
3. North Dakota (there has been some great battles recently in the regular and post-season)
4. Minnesota-Duluth (they also wear maroon and gold)
5. Minnesota-Mankato (I guess you can call it a rivalry - one-sided, though)

Note: All five teams would likely rank Minnesota as their No. 1 rival.

The keys to a succesful series for the Gophers are three-fold:
1. Get a solid goaltending performance from Kangas on Friday night. There is no louder crowd in college hockey than in the Kohl Hole - they will be all over Kangas. If he can win Friday, that confidence will carry over to Saturday.
2. Convert on the power play. Over the past four games, the Gophers failed to score in 14 attempts. It comes after the Gophers had been 10-for-59 (17.0 percent) over the previous 14 games. That stretch followed an 0-for-30 stretch that spanned seven games. For the season, Minnesota ranks 49th of 59 Division I teams on the power play at 12.4 percent.
3. While the Gophers have been strong at the start of games, they’ve been outscored 34-18 in the third period, including 24-7 in WCHA games. Minnesota has to get better when they have a third-period lead.

* The Gophers have won six of the last eight meetings, including four of five games last year. Minnesota is 4-1 in its last five games at the Kohl Center. The Gophers split games in Madison last year, losing 2-1 and winning 1-0.

* The neighboring rivals will play four times in the next four weeks and are deadlocked in a battle for home ice in the first round of the league playoffs.

* Through 26 games, the Gophers have scored the exact same number of goals as their opponents with 69 apiece. In fact, Minnesota and their opponents have also each scored 14 power play goals.

* I'm leaving for Madison tomorrow, so I'll give you the scoop when I get back late Sunday evening.

Kangas named WCHA Rookie of the Week

With two solid performances in Minnesota’s three-point weekend at Minnesota Duluth, freshman goaltender Alex Kangas has been selected the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Rookie of the Week.

Kangas allowed one goal in each game as the Gophers posted a 1-1 tie and 2-1 victory. The Rochester, Minn. native had 18 saves in the tie on Friday and stopped 25 shots in Saturday’s victory. Kangas has played five straight games and started both games of a weekend series for the first time in his career.

For the season, Kangas ranks second among all NCAA Division I freshman goaltenders with a 2.25 goals against average and third among rookie netminders with a .920 save percentage. He is undefeated in road starts with a 2-0-3 record.

Note: With a two-game series at Wisconsin this weekend, Kangas' road unbeaten mark will be put to test.

Links: Nolen Expected To Play

Most importantly today, we learn via GopherGold and Myron Medcalf that Al Nolen practiced Tueseday and is expected to play against Ohio State. This is a very good development. The Gophers still should have been able to win against Michigan State on Sunday, but it was obvious that without him the Gophers lack any real point guard. Lawrence McKenzie can fill this role well in stretches, but when he needs a breather the point guard play became rather hard to watch.

Hopefully Nolen will be at or near 100 percent. They'll need him in a hostile environment.

Now, on to a few other interesting tidbits.

** For a good laugh, you really ought to check out this photoshopped image of Tubby Smith that RandBall found while perusing the Internets. It's very well done.

** This same-day feature piece by John Millea in the Star Tribune is a must-read. Millea chronicles the football and basketball recruitment of Cretin Derham Hall's sophomore Seantrel Henderson, a 6'7", 305 pound offensive lineman (and apparently power forward). Millea reports that Seantrel's recruitment could be higher profile than what we just witnessed with Notre Dame bound Michael Floyd. Also, Jon at TNABACG gushes over Henderson and suggests the big man is "the official Next Big Thing in the state of Minnesota."

** Starting a new blog isn't easy. But your readership grows instantly when you knock one of your first pieces out of the park. That's what the blogger at The Legion of Cats did with this look back at Tubby Smith's departure from Kentucky. Many bloggers, columnists and television pundits have tried to lay out the complicated situation Tubby was involved in at UK, and in just the second post in the blog's history, The Legion of Cats succinctly has accomplished that feat. I'm not going to quote the post extensively here, because it's worth a read in its entirety if you are at all interested in the UK back story.

** Speaking of UK, the Wildcats pulled the upset over a very talented Tennessee team last night. Tru at A Sea of Blue has more. I'll give you a taste:

"The very best victories are the ones you don't expect. That's true in life, for sure, but nowhere is it more axiomatic than in sports. An unanticipated win against a superior opponent just causes those little endorphin thingys to run wild, giving you a wonderfully sated sensation."

While many of us have quietly enjoyed UK's struggles in the early portion of the season, I'm somewhat happy for the UK fan base today. They've been through quite a bit since March and they very much needed a win like this to keep their spirits high.

** The Pioneer Press' Charley Walters has a handful of University of Minnesota tidbits in his column of tidbits today. But, most interesting is his lead to the piece talking with Glen Mason. The coach who came to be known as "Mediocre Mason," suggests that Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney weren't appreciated in Minnesota by "local people." I'm going to assume Mason is referring to the media and fans. I'm not sure I agree with that. I think most everyone looked at the Barber/Maroney tandem (combined with the power running game in general) as one of the best in the nation. But Mason's players didn't get the ink the professional sports teams in Minnesota do because, simply, they weren't winning enough at a high enough level. This seems like a strange comment for Mason to make. What do you think?

** Lastly, I'd like to bring your attention to a blog I've added during the last couple months on the sidebar titled Hoopraker. First, the site is aesthetically pleasing. But more importantly to me, the writing is top-notch. Take this lead to a post from Jan. 14 for instance:

"Sometimes lost in the premature and tunnel visioned emphasis on the NCAA tournament as the only metric of a team’s worth is the appreciation for the moments at hand. Obscured in the bid or bust equation, betrayed by the singular emphasis on the March endgame is an enjoyment of the season as a journey where each individual game, whether win or defeat, whether RPI bolstering or not, tells its own set of compelling stories."

Very well stated point. I check out this site often, and because many blogs get lost on my sidebar, I wanted to take a moment to highlight these guys because they're doing a fantastic job.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Making Room For Talent

It might sound callous, and it likely isn't a topic of conversation the athlete's in the Williams Arena locker room want to discuss, but for the Gophers to have the kind of instant turn around many of us are clamoring for, Tubby Smith might have to make some tough choices with his current roster.

Fact is, Dan Monson compiled a team with the talent level reminiscent of Division II basketball program. The Gophers' incoming class in 2008 includes three freshman, a sophomore and a junior. By all analysis, the class is primed to be the best we have seen since before Jan Gangelhoff-gate.

While that infusion of talent will work towards the type of turnaround we all expect, Tubby might need to be even more aggressive to dramatically increase the talent level of this team. And by that, I mean he might need to take away scholarships or kindly nudge a player towards a transfer. Here are some prime candidates to either return to walk-on status or to find a new home.

*** Jamal Abu-Shamala was a walk-on who busted his rear and eventually was rewarded a scholarship. No one can question Abu-Shamala's heart and desire. He wants to be a Golden Gopher. But he also came to the University knowing he wasn't scholarship material. Circumstances, however, allowed the Shakopee native a chance to play as a scholarship player. But now 17 games into Tubby's tenure, Abu-Shamala's minutes have dwindled. And if it wasn't clear before, Abu-Shamala is a one-dimensional player. Abu-Shamala is obviously a good kid, but for the Gophers to add top-level talent, it might be wise if he reverted back to walk-on status. He will be a senior next year, and it would be tough to take away his scholarship. But for the good of the program, it might be the best decision.

*** Travis Busch was a transfer from Cal-Poly who lucked into a scholarship after the departures of Brandon Smith and Bryce Webster. During his time in California, Busch quickly realized that he wanted to return home. After sitting out one season because of NCAA transfer rules, Busch has played sparingly for the Gophers this season. He's not adept enough at ball handling to play on the perimeter and at 6'4", Busch isn't long enough to play inside. He's not even a tweener. He's a guard who lacks the quickness to play at this level. If Tubby Smith wants to quickly turn this program around, Busch is another candidate to revert to walk-on status.

*** Kevin Payton is a product of Camden, NJ, who was recruited by Jim Molinari and was expected to be a key recruit for Dan Monson when he signed in late 2004. Before Payton dislocated his shoulder during his senior year in New Jersey, the combo-guard was averaging about 30 points per game. But as a Gopher, any offensive talent Payton possesses has been nowhere to be found. He's tentative with the basketball. He doesn't appear to have mastered some basic basketball fundamentals like the jump stop. According to a Payton interview with Rivals (subscription required) from October 2004, the teams after him were Pittsburgh, LaSalle, Binghamton and Penn State. Flash forward to Tubby's first recruiting class, and it's clear our new coach is after more substantial talent. With all of this in mind, it might be best for all parties if Payton decided to play out the remainder of his college career closer to home.

Following this season, the Gophers will also lose seniors Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman and Lawrence McKenzie to graduation. Those scholarships are already accounted for with the incoming class. In order to compete at the level we all desire, the Gophers need an even larger infusion of Big Ten caliber talent.

Right now, only three returning players for 2008-09 seem to be locks to have decent careers at Minnesota. Blake Hoffarber is the best pure shooter in the conference and deserves a roster spot even if he needs to work on diversifying his game. Al Nolen has proven he can play point guard at this level. And more than any other holdover from the Monson era, Damian Johnson stands out as someone who has grasped the aggressive philosophy of Tubby Smith. After those three--and the incoming recruits--the Gophers would be well served to find ways to bring in more top-notch talent.

With the thigh injury to Nolen, it's clear the Gophers could use another point guard. Depending on who you read, Devoe Joseph is either a shooting guard or a point guard. The 4-star guard has the ability to score in bunches, and it would seem he will be a good fit to replace McKenzie at the two spot. After that, the Gophers don't have anyone on the roster who can play the point. And with the graduations of Coleman and Tollackson, the Gophers lack inside depth. Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson will help in this regard, but Jon Williams and Damian Johnson aren't your ideal Big Ten bangers. Johnson is more suited to be a shut-down defender playing small forward and Williams, who will be a senior next year, hasn't been effective in long stretches.

While it's obvious the Gophers have some talent coming in, depth is going to be an issue in the coming years if Tubby Smith doesn't make some hard choices.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Keeping Tabs On The Future: Devoe TV Interview

PJS Note: Periodically over the remainder of the basketball season I will post updates of Tubby Smith's incoming five-man 2008 class. The group has been ranked as high as 10th nationally and it is part of the hopefully golden future of Minnesota basketball.

Four-star Minnesota recruit Devoe Joseph from Pickering, Ontario is the subject of this two-minute television sports news segment. In the segment, Joseph says he believes he'll be able to contribute right away if he's playing up to the coaching staff's expectations. The news clip can be viewed here.

The clip also has a few highlights of Devoe in action.

But perhaps the most entertaining portion of the clip is near the end when Devoe emphatically slams the ball on a breakaway and is subsequently given a technical foul. Devoe throws his hands in the air at the refs. Love it. Make us proud, Devoe.

Gophers Loss To MSU Came With Built-In Excuse

Most Minnesota fans were positive when the Gophers went into East Lansing and fought hard before eventually losing. After the loss at home to Indiana, I was upbeat about the Gophers' chances moving forward. But the most recent loss at Williams Arena--if you listened to post-game remarks--came in part because a freshman point guard wasn't able to suit up and play.

Make no mistake, not having Al Nolen in the lineup Sunday afternoon during the 78-73 loss to the Spartans hurt Minnesota. But, in my mind, the Gophers played like a team all afternoon that was ready to level that as an excuse after the final buzzer sounded. Woe was the Gophers.

Without a relatively unheralded freshman to manage the game, the Gophers put up less of a fight then they had in previous games at Michigan State and Penn State and against the Hoosiers in the Barn. The Star Tribune's Jim Souhan picked up on this theme in his column Monday morning.

Nolen is a fine young player, but by the end of the news conferences Sunday, you would have sworn he was the next Michael Jordan.

That's hardly the case. Even without Nolen, the Gophers had plenty of opportunities to make point-blank baskets. Too often, though, when they needed a basket they came down the court and saw only underclassmen such as Lawrence Westbrook and Blake Hoffarber moving without the ball as if they actually wanted it.

For those of you not able to watch Sunday's game, it was as if the Gophers forgot the importance of taking care of the basketball. Lawrence Westbrook turned the ball over five times alone, and while the Gophers squeaked out an edge in the turnover department, as they have all season, it wasn't enough to overcome MSU's advantage in virtually every other area. The Spartans took higher percentage shots, out rebounded the Gophers and went to the free throw line 13 more times than our maroon and gold.

Goran Suton had 13 rebounds to lead the Spartans. The Gophers were led by Damian Johnson and Spencer Tollackson with six apiece. In 32 minutes, Dan Coleman, a two-guard disguised as a post player, grabbed just three rebounds. In many cases rebounding is about position, hustle and desire. When Suton was able to bring in his own rebound off of a free throw miss, we knew something was wrong Sunday afternoon.

While the Gophers pointed to the absence of a freshman, the team's seniors went into hiding in some cavernous corner of The Barn.

*** Spencer Tollackson chucked up two three pointers and was routinely tossed around in the post by Suton, Drew Naymick and Raymar Morgan.

*** Coleman shot 4-13, and his misses were of the ugly variety. For whatever reason, Coleman has found a middle ground between settling for jumpers and taking it to the basket. Now, Coleman is driving to the basket. But when a defensive player bothers to play some defense, Coleman stops, pivots and fades. Or, in other cases, he launches strange-looking runners from the middle of the lane. In Tubby Smith's post game presser he said, "We have to learn to create offense. We have guys who can score but we have to attack the rim and get a foul instead of avoiding contact." That had to be a reference to Coleman.

Even on a layup (dunk!?!?) Coleman shies away from the rim Sunday

*** It would be easy to praise McKenzie for scoring a team-high 20 points, all in the second half. But the transfer from Oklahoma did nothing in the first half when the Gophers had a chance to put a real scare into the Spartans. We need 40 strong minutes from McKenzie, not 29 minutes of up-and-down play. I have tended to look beyond McKenzie's streaky play this year because Tubby Smith has him playing point guard for lengthy stretches, a position LMac is not accustomed to. But he proved Sunday he can score in bunches, and that has to make one wonder where his scoring has been prior to the second half Sunday. Is it his injured hand? Is he trying to find a balance between being a scoring guard and a distributor? Whatever the case may be, McKenzie needs to be consistent for this group to win big games. And he hasn't been.

Each of the three seniors are likeable ball players and individuals, but at times Sunday the team played in a way that made one wonder if they had the perfect scapegoat in mind: Al Nolen's thigh. It's at times like these when Coleman, Tollackson and McKenzie need to carry this basketball team. They weren't up to the task Sunday.

Injury Update: Marcus Fuller of the Pioneer Press wins Gophers Beat Reporter of the Day Award from PJS for providing a smidgen of information on Nolen's injury. At least three days after the injury occurred, Fuller tells us that Nolen "is day to day with a thigh bruise injury. He was injured in practice last Saturday after getting a knee in the thigh." Nolen will be reevaluated on Thursday, according to Fuller, to determine his availability for the game next weekend at Ohio State. Judging by the track record of our beat reporters, that means we'll likely find out sometime during the telecast from Columbus whether or not Nolen will be ready to play again.

Fantastic Reporting Update: For those following Myron Medcalf, well, the STrib's fearless beat reporter decided to make an excuse for not reporting the Nolen injury prior to yesterday's game instead of actually telling us how bad the injury might be. "Nolen's absence, caused when he was kneed in his right leg at practice Saturday -- unbeknownst to most outside of the team. ..." Yes, Myron, that's why it's called reporting. It sounds crazy, but sometimes sources don't go and call reporters every time news breaks. Sometimes, I know it's insane, sources want to keep information from reporters. Unbeknownst? Were you hoping for a press release, Myron?

Big Ten Bloggers Power Rankings

Before I delve into the loss at home to Michigan State Sunday afternoon, here is my new Big Ten Power Rankings. After all of the Big Ten Bloggers have their rankings in, you'll see an updated Power Rankings on the right sidebar.

1. Indiana (16-1, 5-0) Previous: #1
Last week: 2-0 (W @ Minn., vs. PSU) Next week: 1/23 vs. Iowa, 1/26 vs. UConn

I'm now convinced the Hoosiers are the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. Never mind Eric Gordon. It's DJ White that makes this team the team to beat in the conference. He's vastly superior to Michigan State's lumbering Goran Suton and lanky Drew Naymick and White also will win the day against Wisconsin's Brian Butch. Gordon gets the press, but White's the cog that makes it all work.

2. Wisconsin (15-2, 5-0) Previous: #2
Last week: 2-0 (W @ PSU, vs. NW) Next week: 1/22 vs. Mich., 1/26 @ Purdue

In conference play, I'm not sure the Badgers have really been tested. That will change next weekend when Bo Ryan takes his team on the road to face the Boilers on Keady Court. Hawkeye State at BHGP is looking even further ahead to Bucky's tilt against Indiana at the Kohl Center. But I'm not sure the Badgers will head into that contest unblemished in conference play. Look for Purdue to hold home court next weekend.

3. Purdue (13-5, 4-1) Previous: #4
Last week: 2-0 (W @ Iowa, vs. Ill.) Next week: 1/23 @ PSU, 1/26 vs. Wisky

I'm sure some will say I shouldn't have the Boilers ahead of the Spartans. But Matt Painter's team took control on the road against Iowa against a team that Sparty crumbled against. And if we want to write that Purdue is destined to be streaky because of its youth, I'll just point out that no top-tier Big Ten team has been streakier than MSU. The Boilers are my early 2008-09 Big Ten favorites and they can take a giant step this week by upsetting Wisconsin.

4. Michigan State (16-2, 4-1) (Previous: #3)
Last week: 2-0 (W vs. OSU, @ Minn.) Next week: 1/24 @ NW, 1/27 vs. Mich.

Tom Izzo's team is obviously tournament bound and has the depth to be a conference title contender. But the Spartans don't have the feel of a team that can strike a knockout blow to lesser competition. Minnesota has hung around twice. Iowa pulled the upset. And after jumping out to a huge first half lead early last week against Ohio State, the Spartans watched their lead disappear. However, at no time during conference play has both Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel played well at the same time. Should that happen, watch out.

5. Ohio State (12-6, 3-2) (Previous: #6)
Last week: 0-2 (L @ MSU, @ Tennessee) Next week: 1/22 vs. Ill., 1/26 vs. Minn.

No shame in losing at Michigan State or Tennessee (I love the Vols, btw). But the Buckeyes are sitting in roughly the same position as our Golden Gophers. They need that quality win to find themselves in the NCAA come March. This week is a big one for Thad Matta and company. They have to hold home court with games against Illinois and Minnesota.

6. Minnesota (12-5, 2-3) (Previous: #5)
Last week: 0-2 (L vs. IU, vs. MSU) Next week: 1/26 @ OSU

Minnesota falls behind Ohio State here because the Gophers' losses to ranked teams this week came at home. As much as we like to dream big dreams about Tubby Smith's first version of maroon and gold, the team hasn't exhibited enough consistent play to be anything but a middle of the road team at this point. Should they go into Columbus next weekend and get a win, that could all change.

7. Illinois (9-10, 1-5) (Previous: #9)
Last week: 1-1 (W vs. Mich., L @ Purdue) Next week: 1/22 @ OSU, 1/27 vs. NW

Someone had to fill the 7-hole, and why not Bruce Weber's fallen-on-hard-times Illini. Seriously, however, the Illini have played in some close games but have been unable to pull off any big wins.

8. Penn State (10-7, 2-3) (Previous: #7)
Last week: 0-2 (L vs. Wisky, @ IU) Next week: 1/23 vs. Purdue, 1/26 @ Iowa

I feel sorry for the Nittany Lions. They might not have been NCAA material, but they had a chance for a near .500 record in the conference with Geary Claxton leading youngsters like Talor Battle and Jamelle Cornley. Hand it to Ed DeChellis and his team for playing well at IU for 3/4 of the game. Unfortunately for them, the career-ending injury to Claxton means season is over.

9. Iowa (9-10, 2-4) (Previous: #8)
Last week: 1-1 (L vs. Purdue, W @ Mich.) Next week: 1/23 @ Ind., 1/26 vs. PSU

I should probably swap the Hawkeyes in the rankings with the Illini, but seriously, this team would welcome an addition of someone like Kevin Payton.

10. Michigan (5-13, 1-5) (Previous: #10)
Last week: 0-2 (L @ Illini, vs. Iowa) Next week: 1/22 @ Wisky, 1/27 @ MSU

Well, at least Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia detractors are giving the UM fans something to talk about.

11. Northwestern (6-9, 0-5) (Previous: #11)
Last week: 1-1 (W @ Chicago St., L @ Wisky) Next week: 1/24 vs. MSU, 1/27 @ Illini

How many years does Bill Carmody get? Just curious.

Just what they needed

Hello PJS fans. My name is Eric and I’m a Gopher fan, but more importantly to this great blog, a hockey fan. I hope to provide some pre-weekend and post-weekend analysis of the Gophers as the team fights to finish in the top five in the WCHA and hopefully keep alive a NCAA berth this season.

Since I am an active media member, I will attempt to have a few stories on players and some post-game reactions from players and coaches when I have time to make it to Mariucci. I hope you enjoy.

Entering the weekend on the bottom half looking up, Minnesota took two huge steps in moving into the top five with a 1-1 tie Friday and 2-1 win Saturday over fourth-place Minnesota-Duluth. The three points, on the road at the DECC, moved the Gophers into a three-way tie for fifth with St. Cloud State and Wisconsin.

The top five teams at the end of the season host playoff first-round series.

The Gophers, on the heels of a 3-1 loss and 4-4 tie at St. Cloud State, a game in which Minnesota led 4-1, were on the verge of a make or break point. With a series against a team above them in the standings, more than a split was needed at Duluth.

In game one, freshman goaltender Alex Kangas made 18 saves on 19 shots and gave his team a chance to win. However, the Gophers managed just one goal on the evening as Ben Gordon scored his eighth goal of the season on assists from Blake Wheeler and Mike Howe early in the third period.

UMD got the equalizer seven minutes later on an even strength goal on Matt McKnight’s fifth goal of the year.

With four minutes left, the No. 16 Bulldogs had a 5-on-3 power play for 1:22 and managed only one shot.

Gordon was quoted in the Star Tribune as saying: “We played a lot better than we have been the past couple of months. As far as keeping the puck down low and controlling it, and keeping it on our stick.”

Alex Stalock, a standout goaltender from South St. Paul, made 26 saves in the tie for the Bulldogs.

In the second game of the series, Minnesota got another standout performance from the freshman netminder, and goals from two unlikely scorers to eek out a 2-1 win.

Tony Lucia scored his fifth goal of the season on a rebound shot from Kevin Wehrs from the point. Lucia wristed the rebound top right corner past a stunned Stalock at 12:24 of the first period.
In the second, Mike Carman’s first goal of the season – only his fourth game back after sitting out the first half of the season due to academic ineligibility – came off a perfect pass from linemate Jay Barriball, who took the defenseman into the corner and dumped a pass out in front to Carman.

"This was a big game for us tonight," Carman said postgame. "We knew we needed to come out of here tonight with three points. We cannot keep sliding by with losses and ties every weekend.

"We were disappointed a little bit - we obviously tied [Friday] night. We played a good game. We felt we could have come out with a win [Friday] night. It was good to get that victory tonight."

UMD rallied within a goal on a power-play blast from defenseman Jason Garrison with 11 minutes remaining. However, Kangas was up to the task, collecting 25 saves in his first back-to-back starts of his collegiate career.

“Alex gave a strong game in the nets,” Lucia said. “I don't think he saw that one goal he gave up tonight. It was a great shot on their part. From a team defensive standpoint, I thought we did a terrific job all weekend.”

The Gophers travel to rival Wisconsin for a two-game series next weekend. The Badgers, who have an identical conference record of 6-8-2, beat Alaska-Anchorage 2-1 and earned a 4-4 tie for three points on the road.

* WIth the performance of Kangas this past weekend, I would expect Lucia to stick with him heading into the Wisconsin series. Although in recent years Frazee has played well in the Kohl Center, but he may be too far in the doghouse at this point.

* Did you know that Tony Lucia's fifth goal of the season Saturday made him the fourth leading scorer on the team this season? Blake Wheeler has 12 goals, Ben Gordon has eight and Mike Hoeffel has six. What does this mean? The offense hasn't gotten the production it has needed from at least three players.

They are:
1. Jay Barriball: 3 goals (had 20 goals last year)
2. Mr. Hockey Patrick White: 3 goals
3. Evan Kauffman: 4 goals (had 11 last year in only 32 games)

R.J. Anderson, who coming into his junior season had recorded no goals in two seasons, has four this season.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Michigan State at Minnesota Game Thread

For those of you trying to follow this game online, I'll provide updates during timeouts and other random occasions. Feel free to make any observations of your own or pose questions in the comments below.

The Gophers are starting Lawrence McKenzie, Spencer Tollackson, Dan Coleman, Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson. That's good news already.

First Half:

** 15:44==MInnesota 4, Michigan State 4: Decent start for the Gophers. Spencer Tollackson is asserting himself inside. Raymar Morgan is 0-2 from the field and the free throw line. The Spartans have already turned the ball over at least three times--though they were unforced turnovers. The Gophers are playing a full-court man defense. Johnson started out the game on Morgan. The Gophers have had a couple sloppy possessions and forced shots. Against teams like this, we need to execute on all possessions.

** The Gophers come out of the TV timeout with Blake Hoffarber, Kevin Payton, Jon Williams, Jamal Abu-Shamala and Damian Johnson on the floor. Interesting lineup. Payton is playing point.

** 13:05--Minnesota 8, MSU 4: You know. that little lineup played pretty well together. They got back on defense after scores. They threw themselves on the floor for loose balls. And they moved the ball well. Coleman reentered the game for Johnson at the 13 minute mark for Johnson. Give Jon Williams credit for blocking a shot and creating a couple second chance opportunities for the Gophers.

** 11:42--Minnesota 10, MSU 8: The Spartans are hurting us on the boards. Raymar Morgan got an offensive board and a stick back. On the next possession Drew Naymick outworked Jon Williams and was fouled. Interestingly, Travis Busch has now seen action but Al Nolen is nowhere to be found.

***** Announcers just informed Al Nolen has a thigh problem and might not see action today. That's news to me. Of course our fearless beat reporters didn't inform us of this development. I'm getting to a point where I'm going to take the gloves off with Myron Medcalf and even Marcus Fuller. For the love of Jim Shikenjanski, we live in the viral media era where you can post an important update to your blog FROM ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD--which includes Williams Arena.

** 7:14--Minnesota 19, MSU 18: The Spartans took their first lead of the game for a couple reasons. Kalin Lucas hit a nice outside three. Chris Allen has gotten hot from the outside, and for some reason Tubby responds by going to a 2-3 zone. Also Dan Coleman continues to be mystified when he's trying to take the ball inside. But the Gophers have battled back. Hoffarber followed a bricked Tollackson three (Yes, Tollackson) for a lay-in. Moments later Hoffarber nailed a three in transition.

** 3:55--Minnesota 25, MSU 25: Jon WIlliams is playing his best minutes of the year, offensively and on the boards. He's just been active and is being rewarded with minutes. But overall, the Gophers have gotten away from what they need to do. MSU's outside shots aren't being contested as well as they can be. MSU's second chances still need to be lessened. Dan Coleman still has no clue how to take the ball to the basket. The Gophers have done well to stay in this game, despite playing relatively poorly and with Nolen firmly planted on the bench.

** Tubby is not happy with Tollackson, and free throws have nothing to do with it. Tollackson let Naymic just push him around on a rebound opportunity. Tubby immediately brought Williams back in for Tollackson. And if you're wondering, the Naymick rebound led to an MSU bucket.

** OMG: Lawrence Westbrook is playing point. And it's ugly. Multiple turnovers in the matter of seconds. Ugly, really. When our guards on the floor are Payton and Westbrook, offense isn't going to be pretty.

Halftime--Minnesota 27, MSU 31: The Gophers completely fell apart down the stretch. And that's what is going to happen when you have the under performing Lawrence Westbrook and the tentative Kevin Payton trying to play point guard. If McKenzie can't play 20 minutes of top-notch basketball in the second half, this game is going to get ugly.

Dan Coleman, our supposed offensive answer to Raymar Morgan, is a disappointment thus far as usual. He's 2-7 from the floor and hasn't gone to the line. When he tries to attack the basket, he still finds a way to be passive by fading away.

The Gophers didn't score for the last 5-plus minutes of the first half for a few reasons. We have no floor general getting us good looks. Because of that we're turning the ball over. Secondly, Drew Naymick and Goran Suton are creating second and third chances for the Spartans. After starting out strong, Tollackson has looked tired. He's not boxing out strongly. Williams and Johnson have been our best defensive rebounders today.

I'm not feeling optimistic about this second half. Without Nolen, the Gophers are without their best, and only, point guard.

Overall, the Gophers played sloppy in the first half and don't deserve to be winning at the break.
Second half:

** 18:20--Minnesota 30, MSU 31: Entertainment value here. Spencer gets fouled and goes to the line. He makes the foul shot and the crowd erupts like it hasn't all afternoon. The Gophers have the ball here down one. But the same issues are troubling us. Naymick and Suton have already grabbed offensive reboudns this half. We're just lucky they haven't covereted.

** 15:24--Minnesota 35, MSU 36: The Gophers are hanging around, but I'm not liking what I'm seeing. MSU's second-chance opportunities are bordering on ridiculous. That said, McKenzie stepped up and hit a big three. A sign of how far he's fallen: The Spartans basically let him shoot, dared him. Tollackson's energy seems to be back, but he's just honeslty not in the same class as the taller and more athletic Sparty big men.

** 11:50 Minnesota 42, MSU 45: The Gophers retake the lead momentarilly on two Damian Johnson free throws (this boy knows how to take the ball to the basket, take note Dan Coleman) and on a pull up three from McKenzie. But Neitzel answers right back with a three of his own. And then after a McKenzie miss, Neitzel pushes and misses a short jumper, but Suton has position on Tollackson to tap it in. Same story, different day. Michigan State has 14 second chance points. Minnesota? 4.

Also interesting is that Raymar Morgan has just two points after destroying the Gophers with 31 in East Lansing. But Coleman, who was in foul trouble in the Breslin Center and finished the Big Ten opener with just six points .... has just six this afternoon while staying out of foul trouble.

10:16--Minnesota 47, MSU 50: For some reason, Neitzel is being left wide open in the corner nearest the Spartans bench. And he's hitting. And for whatever reason, Tollackson just tried another three pointer. UUUGH.

7:52--Minnesota 49, MSU 55: Right when the Gophers get a chance to get back in the game, the Spartans have an answer. After a ESPN highlight worthy McKenzie drive to the basket, the Spartans try to push (with a 3 point lead) but Westbrook picks a pass. Westbrook gets slightly out of control pushing the other way and dumps it down low to Williams, who tries a no-look bounce bass in the lane to McKenzie. It was of course picked off and the Spartans run the other way for another Neitzel three pointer. As someone said in the comments section, the Gophers have not been able to put together even an entire half of good basketball this season. The second half against MSU has been no different.

** AGAIN! The Gophers go on a four point run (Westbrook free throws and a fast break 2 from Westbrook) and then they force a tough shot on defense but Morgan grabs the offensive board and fins Lucas for a quick two.

** 5:57--Minnesota 55, MSU 60: The Spartans are running staggered screens for Neitzel, who continues to destroy us. But Neitzel has just taken a breather and the Gophers have moved to a 2-3 zone. The Gophers have also missed their last 3 free throws (two from Tollackson and one by Westbrook).

** 3:58--Minnesota 55, MSU 65: You know your team can't rebound when on a missed free throw, Suton (who was shooting) strolls down the lane, grabs the board, and puts in a layup. What else? Hoffarber can't get a shot off. While the Gophers aren't making free throws, Naymick and Suton are. This game is about over and, to be honest, I'm not sure the Gophers came today ready to play basketball. They might have one last run in them. We'll see. We've scored 6 points in the last five minutes. That's not going to get it done.

Final: Michigan State 78, Minnesota 73.

I'll have more thoughts tomorrow, but just briefly, I'm not sure the Gophers came out with enough intensity to win today. They seemed flat. This showed in Michigan State's ability to dominate on the offensive glass.

I also want to note that Lawrence McKenzie scored 20 points--all in the second half. So much for his injury plaguing him. He needs to be an offensive weapon for this team, because it's now completely clear Dan Coleman can't be a go-to player against top-notch competition. More on Coleman tomorrow.

The Gophers were hurt today by the unexplained loss of Al Nolen. But that doesn't excuse the sloppiness. Tollackson hurled up two threes? Are you kidding? Westbrook and Payton running the team together? It became small girls high school basketball ugly. The game wasn't as close as the final score indicates. The Spartans were in control of the temp throughout the game. They got the shots they wanted and when they didn't, Naymick, Suton and Morgan were there to clean things up.

Of the three conference losses (@MSU, IU, MSU), this loss was by far the most disappointing.

Game Day Prep: Michigan State at Minnesota

Series: Minnesota leads series 53-46 according to Minnesota's Athletic Department.
Tip: 3 p.m central time
Television: Big Ten Network

Announcers: Roger Twibell and Trent Tucker
PJS Prediction: Michigan State 69-64
Liveblog: Yes. If you can't see the game, come back and I'll tell you what's going on.
Ken Pomeroy Scouting Reports: Minnesota, Michigan State


AP and ESPN: Michigan State 11/11, Minnesota Unranked
Basketball Predictions: Michigan State 2 seed, Minnesota "Just Missed Cut"
Ken Pomeroy RPI: Minnesota 63, Michigan State 8
RPI Ratings: Minnesota 52, Michigan State 8
Real Time RPI: Minnesota 56, Michigan State 10
Colley Rankings: MIchigan State 10, Minnesota 52

Articles and Blog Posts:

Star Tribune: Myron Medcalf strokes Tom Izzo's ego.

Star Tribune: Patrick Reusse says we the loss to IU was unacceptable. "If Monson was coaching, Indiana had played this miserably and the Gophers lost, we would've been on him like George W. on Iran."

Detroit Free Press: Feature on fifth-year senior Drew Naymick, who was highly annoying during Minnesota's loss at MSU earlier in the year. He was a factor underneath the basket blocking shots and rebounding.

Daily Tribune: Spartans struggle away from Breslin Center.

CSTV: Spartans looking to bring out brooms Sunday.

PiPress: In Charley Walters' series of blurbs we learn that despite limited playing time, former Brahman, Minn. standout Isiah Dahlman is happy at Michigan State despite limited playing time.

PiPress: Tubby Smith is quite honest with Marcus Fuller, stating that he hasn't found a go-to player for big shots, down the stretch in games. I think we've seen this at Penn State and on Thursday in Williams Arena. Paging Dan Coleman anybody?

GopherNation: Predicts a Gophers win and suggests the Gophers need to shut down Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel.

From the Barn: Somehow we have a prediction of a Gophers win and a Gophers loss??? Either way, Spencer Tollackson and Blake Hoffarber are keys for the Gophers according to this blogger.

*** Not as much as usual here, because, well, people are probably lazy on the weekends. If you see another link, drop it in the comments section and I'll bump it up here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Izzo, Morgan Come To The Barn For Round Two

Likely still reeling from the loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, Tubby Smith's Gophers will need to pick themselves up in short order, forget about the heartbreaking loss on Thursday and come with their best performance of the year if they are going to upend the 11th ranked Michigan State Spartans Sunday afternoon.

Expectations for the Gophers season spiked after they went to East Lansing to face these same Spartans for the Big Ten opener. Because the Gophers had previously struggled mightily on the road against top-notch opponents--think UNLV and Florida State--the line of thinking was the Spartans would win handily. But the Gophers exceeded expectations and had numerous chances to upset Tom Izzo's Spartans.

The Gophers stayed in that game, in part, because they forced the Spartans to shoot outside, playing a lot of 2-3 zone. The Spartans shot just 20 percent from beyond the arc. Specifically, Drew Neitzel struggled, shooting 0-6 from three. But the Gophers didn't have an answer for sophomore phenom Raymar Morgan, who put up a career high 31 points, adding 10 rebounds to boot.

The Spartans also did well to push the ball up the floor after Minnesota possessions. The Gophers didn't get back on defense well, and Morgan and others benefited. To pull the upset on Sunday, the Gophers will need to slow Morgan and make sure they don't give the Spartans easy transition baskets.

The Gophers were also hurt during the Big Ten opener on the glass. The Spartans out-rebounded the Gophers 48-25. If such a discrepancy exists again, the Gophers will lose.

And as has too often been the case, Dan Coleman disappeared in a big game. He found himself in early foul trouble early and finished with a measly six points and two rebounds. That, too, can't happen again.

So, there are the reasons for pessimism: The Gophers might not have had time to recover from the loss to Indiana. The Gophers have no answer for Morgan. The Spartans are a superior team in transition and on the glass.

But, there are reasons to think an upset is feasible as well.

The fact is, since the conference season began, Sparty has been unimpressive. After the opening win against the Gophers, the Spartans held off an upstart Purdue team at home by three. Then the Spartans went to Iowa City and watched as the lowly Hawkeyes slowed down the pace of the game to win 43-36. Back at home against Ohio State on Tuesday, the Spartans jumped out to a quick lead in the first half by pushing tempo. But, again, Ohio State slowed tempo and the Spartans looked very beatable.

Their trip to Williams Arena will be just their second road conference game of the season. If the Spartans struggled in Iowa, it's safe to assume they could struggle in Minneapolis.

Keys to the Game:

** Dan Coleman needs to show up this time.

** Spencer Tollackson needs to bounce back.

** Lawrence Westbrook and Lawrence McKenzie need to lessen MSU's edge in the back court. MSU's Neitzel, Travis Walton and Kalin Lucas bring different strengths to the floor. Slowing down this group, forcing turnovers and pressuring their three-point attempts will be key.

** The Gophers desperately need to find an answer for Raymar Morgan. Damian Johnson has started two straight games drawing defensive match ups against Geary Claxton, and at times, Eric Gordon. I expect to see the Gophers put Johnson on Morgan, who abused Jamal Abu-Shamala in East Lansing.

** Slow the tempo. The Gophers need to find a balance between getting easy baskets in transition and frustrating the Spartans by slowing the game down. We need to run when we can but orchestrate quality, time-consuming possessions the vast majority of the time.

** Execute down the stretch. Even in the comeback at Penn State, the Gophers gave the Nittany Lions three chances in the last minute to win the game. A late turnover cost us against Indiana. The Gophers need to make their free throws if this is a close game and get good shots when the game is on the line. So far this season, we haven't done that.

Prediction: It would be easy for me to pick the Gophers, pointing to MSU's struggles on the road against Iowa. But I don't think the Gophers have an answer for Morgan. And the Spartans will not take the Gophers lightly. They will come ready to play--and have had since Tuesday to prepare for this game. Meanwhile, the Gophers could well be still recovering from the IU loss. I think the Gophers lose another close one: 69-64.

Friday, January 18, 2008

When It's Cold And We're Sad In Minneaota...

... We dress up like gorillas and sing pop ballads to cheer each other up. We're cute like that.

Here are the Minnesota gorillas singing Jumper by Third Eye Blind. The gorillas probably sang this with Spencer Tollackson in mind after his adventures in free throws against IU. Let's all join the gorillas and sing to Spencer.

"Well hes on the table and hes gone to code
And I do not think anyone knows
What they're doing here
And your friends have left you
You've been dismissed
I never thought it would come to this
And i, I want you to know
Everyone's got to face down the demons
Maybe today ...."

... You'll practice your damn free throws.

(HT-West Coast Bias)