Friday, February 22, 2008

The Lawrence McKenzie Show

That's what it was Thursday night in Williams Arena. Senior Lawrence McKenzie put up a career-high 26 timely points to carry the Gophers past a Michigan Wolverines team that seems to be gaining confidence as the season drags on.

Instead of doing a blow by blow recap of last night's game, I want to focus solely on McKenzie. He pushed the Gophers out to a quick first half lead with his hot shooting from beyond the arc. He had nine points in the first five or six minutes. His offense came and went for the middle portion of the game, as the Wolverines fought their way to a lead midway through the second half. But then, showing the offensive punch we all knew he had, McKenzie took over towards the end as he did shortly after the opening tip.

He finished with an incredible line. He was 9-14 from the floor including 7-11 from three point land. The offensive onslaught from McKenzie, in my mind, can be at least partially explained because he is now reverting back into the role of a shooting guard. He started in the backcourt alongside Al Nolen. And only for small portions of the game was McKenzie charged with being the floor leader, which it is so incredibly clear isn't his strength.

It's tough to blame Tubby Smith or anyone else for the situation McKenzie was thrust into this season. The team only has one true point guard in Nolen, an exciting but still unpolished true freshman. So, Tubby began the season by trying to get McKenzie comfortable playing the point. It never happened, and not only was McKenzie prone to turning the ball over, but his offense disappeared on most nights.

Tubby didn't really have any other option to start the season. Nolen wasn't ready to play 25-30 minutes per game as he is now. The only other point guard options were Lawrence Westbrook (that's scary) and Kevin Payton (yikes). So McKenzie, playing for his fourth coach during his college career, was forced to completely reinvent himself. That plan didn't work out, at least not the way I imagine Tubby envisioned it.

Now, McKenzie can play a handful of minutes at the point with some confidence. But it is so incredibly clear that he is the best scoring option on this team. To lose that offense because McKenzie is concentrating on protecting the ball, setting up the offense or getting Spencer Tollackson involved was unfortunate.

Against the Wolverines, McKenzie led the Gophers to a 69-60 win. It's really too bad the dearth of point guards on this roster forced McKenzie to put that offense on the shelf for much of the season.

UP Next: The Gophers host Penn State this weekend, another highly winnable game that should get the Gophers back to .500 (7-7) in the conference. Penn State will likely come in with a chip on their shoulder after the amazing comeback the Gophers made in Happy Valley earlier this season.


The Sports Guy said...

Let's assume Minnesota wins Sunday and goes to 17-9 on the season, 7-7 in the Big Ten.

I still think they have a shot at NCAAs with three of four wins. It will be tough at Purdue, home against Ohio State and then finish at Indiana and Illinois.

20-10 and 10-8 in the Big 10 heading into the tournament - that would have to be good enough. WOuldn't it?

snyde043 said...

Not sure if 20-10 and 10-8 are good enough, but winning a couple games in the Big Ten tournament to go along with that might be enough.

But I think it might be overly-optimistic to count on winning three of the final four. I'd almost be pleasantly surprised to see them go 2-2 in those games.

Whogoofed said...

I think you got it exactly right with L.M. He should be playing at shooting guard. You can't fault Tubby for that. There just is no other good options. Looking back you could say that Tubby should have just threw Al in there at the beginning and have him take his lumps at point. I'm not sure they could have done much worse.

snyde043 said...

I love Al Nolen, but if Tubby had thrown him in the deep end and the Gophers had lost a couple more of those pre-conference games that were actually pretty close, we'd all be saying too bad the Gophers didn't use McKenzie at the point more until Nolen was ready.

If we have to blame anyone, I'd say blame whoever thought Kevin Payton could've been an option at the point.

Here's hoping McKenzie can continue to spend most of his time at SG the rest of the way. If he can, maybe the Gophers could get three of those last four and make some noise in the conference tourney.

PJS said...

I think the Gophers are NIT bound, even if they get to 20 wins. They've come up short in every true test. A run to the Big Ten semis could do the trick, but that's a longshot unless someone like McKenzie really carries the team.

But hey, at least this team is playing for something, which is much more than we've been able to say for quite some time (other than the Vincent Grier led season).

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