Monday, January 21, 2008

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?


lurker said...

I tend to agree with you when you say the Gophers weren't as intense as their previous games. The atmosphere in the barn on television at least seemed less than the Indiana game.

I bet the players and fans had still not recovered from the loss on Thursday.

Anonymous said...

To borrow from Denny Grren, The Gophers are who we thought they were. The positive is that the team is much improved from last year. The negative is that if I were to start the team from scratch I would only keep Blake, Al, and Johnson. Just not a lot of talent there right now. I think that taken through the Penn St game unrealisitic expectations were raised. I got caught in that trap myself.

PJS said...

Perhaps we all got caught up in Tubby fever. But to be fair, the Gophs have only lost to teams they should lose to and have beaten teams they should beat. That alone is a vast improvement.

Your comment, anon, on Blake, Al and Johnson is spot on and I plan to address that later this week.

TSAX said...

PJS These guys are a joke. You are right unbeknownst to me? What do you expect... Myron, its your JOB to find out. He is better off coming on here and finding information than sitting at home waiting for "sources" call call him. Thanks for the update... you are right, the newspapers are dieing, but that just helps your site grow. Keep it up PJS.

Friend Of Tubby said...

(From Cats Pause)

Blue N...lation
Post #3
With and without the Tubster!

Both UK and Minnesota have now played 17 games this season.

Our record so far = 8-9
Our record after 17 games last year = 14-3

MN’s record so far = 12-5
MN’s record after 17 games last year = 7-10

What a difference a year makes!

Was this the impact everyone was hoping for?