Sunday, March 30, 2008

In the end, Gophers fail to convert

The story has been the same all season for the Gopher hockey team - chances are there, results are not.

Minnesota outshot Boston College, 33-32, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, yet the Eagles won on the scoreboard, 5-2.

The Gophers had chances throughout the game, but unlike Boston College, Minnesota was unable to cash in. The Eagles were just the better team, and unfortunately for the Gophers, their best player (Alex Kangas) didn't have much say. Whether it was a breakaway on a bad line change or a player being left in front of the net, Kangas really had no chance (maybe could've stopped the fourth goal, which tipped off his glove).

Minnesota was whistled for four penalties in the opening seven minutes, and the Eagles capitalized on a 4-on-3 opportunity on Ben Smith's 22nd goal of the season to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead (David Fischer attempted to clear the puck, but whiffed and the puck went right to Smith).

After surviving the rest of the period, Minnesota tied the score in the second period on Mike Howe's rebound goal off a shot from David Fischer. However, just over four minutes later, Benn Ferriero’s 17th tally of the season put BC ahead for good.

Third period goals by Pat Gannon and Joe Whitney would ice things for the Eagles. Minnesota did mount a mini comeback on a Ben Gordon goal late in the game on a six-on-four goal (Kangas was out of the net) with four minutes left. Actually play went on for more than three minutes before the referees had a chance to review it and find out they missed one.

A late empty net goal by Hobey Baker finalist Nate Gerbe made the final difference.

They’re a good transition team and we knew that," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "There were a lot of penalties right away. It was hard to get into the flow of the game. I thought we got better when we could roll our lines a little more in the second and third periods. They have really high-skilled players and they’re really good around the net. They really swarm the blue paint. They are really quick to the pucks and that’s one of their big assets."

Minnesota says goodbye to seniors Derek Peltier, Evan Kaufmann, Tom Pohl, Ben Gordon, Mike Howe, and Brent Solei. I wouldn't be suprised to see one or two others leave as well (possibly Blake Wheeler to Phoenix or goaltender Jeff Frazee, who has no future with the program).

Howe: "It’s pretty emotional. The last four years have been years I’ll never forget. Losing the way we did today, we fought real hard, we just didn’t get a couple bounces to go our way. Playing for the University of Minnesota has meant the world to me. It’s sad to say goodbye this way."

Gordon: "For me, I guess the hardest part is saying goodbye to a lot of good friends that we’ve made over the years. I just want to say a special thanks to my class. They are some of my best friends in the whole world. I am so fortunate to get a chance to play for this school and with such a great coaching staff. I’ve loved it."

They bring back a nice nucleus of players to go along with arguably the top freshman class in the nation, led by the likes of Jordan Schroeder, Aaron Ness and Jake Hansen.

I think the Gophers need to get a little stronger in the back, but I'd assume that will happen with Kevin Wehrs, Stu Bickel and Cade Fairchild all being a year older. I also think that RJ Anderson and David Fischer need to make strides. I think Fischer can be a top defenseman, but he needs to work a bit harder at improving his offense. It starts with hitting the net on his shot.

As for forwards, this team needs goal scorers and Schroeder and Hansen will help, but they need more from guys such as Mike Hoeffel, Patrick White and Mike Carman. Right now, we have a lot of second and third line guys - that has to improve.

Yes, a disappointing end to one of the worst seasons in a decade, but a month ago I didn't even think we'd be in the NCAAs, so the late season run was a good sign for the future, especially with Kangas in nets.

Half of the Frozen Four is set with top seed Michigan and a No. 4 seed Notre Dame, yes a No. 4. I think North Dakota beats Wisconsin (who scored six goals on Peter Mannino and Denver) and Boston College houses Miami of Ohio.

Go Davidson! Thanks for reading!

Men's Hoops Schedule Improving

When one reads about the nickname "Ten Loss Tubby" Tubby Smith was bestowed in Lexington, Ky, it is often overlooked that the former Wildcats coach traditionally played one of the more strenuous schedules in the country.

Aside from an already-tough SEC schedule, Tubby Smith scheduled tough opponents of all kinds, from the UCLA's of the world to A-10 teams like UMASS. And after one season in Minnesota with a schedule filled with teams with nicknames like the Jackrabbits, it looks like Tubby Smith is working hard to improve upon Minnesota's non-conference schedule.

Sid Hartman reports that the Gophers will face Louisville in December as part of a double-header at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. The Gophers will also play host to the National Association of Basketball of Basketball Coaches tournament in early November. No other teams have been announced, but hosting that tournament (a byproduct of Tubby's involvement with the group) could well bring another upper-echelon foe to the schedule.

From the Barn notes this schedule announcement and suggests a win would be a "fluke." Well, Louisville will be without graduating star David Padgett next season and the Gophers will look entirely different. The Gophers will have five--and I'm led to believe probably six--new recruits playing significant minutes next season. If the Specner Tollackson-led Gophers were facing Louisville, I'd quickly agree and say it would be a shock if the Gophers won. But until we see Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph, Colt Iverson, Paul Carter, Devron Bostick and others in maroon and gold and competing for the Gophers ... positive or negative predictions seem a little silly.

To date, the Gophers have also scheduled Cleveland State, Cornell and Iowa State.

Meanwhile, Shooter Walters has also reported that the Gophers were trying to get UCLA to schedule a game but have been turned down. The Gophers also have had a chance to schedule California, but the Golden Bears apparently didn't appeal to Tubby Smith.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Finally, BC and Minnesota meet again

At two points this season, Minnesota and Boston College, two of the top hockey programs in the country, appeared to be on a collision course to face each other.

The first time was the Icebreaker Tournament last October. Minnesota won their game, Boston College did not.

The second time was the Dodge Holiday Classic in Decmeber. Boston College took care of Air Force, Minnesota lost to RIT.

The NCAA Tournament committee took care of giving us the matchup we've all expected all season. Minnesota, the No. 3 seed in the Northeast Region, will face the second seeded Eagles at 6:30 (CT) p.m. tonight in Worchester, Mass. The game is on locally on Fox Sports Net North, while ESPNU will have it on tape delay at midnight (CT) tonight.

The Gophers are making their NCAA record 32nd trip to the tournament, including their eighth straight. Boston College is 21-11-8 and is in the field for the 28th time and has finished as national runner-up the past two seasons. What you have is two heavyweight programs hoping to get a shot at the winner of Miami (Ohio) and Air Force in the regional championship.

The title game is Sunday at 3:30 p.m. (CT) on ESPNU.

The Gophers lead the all-time series with Boston College 14-10-2, but the teams have not played since a 2-1 Minnesota victory in 2002. Minnesota has played Boston College in the NCAA tournament more than any other opponent, having met eight previous times, but not since 1990 when the Eagles won a best-of-three series. Each team has won four of the postseason encounters.

Both Minnesota and Boston College have been playing some of their best hockey of the season in recent weeks. The Gophers were the seventh seed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, but won four straight one-goal games, including three overtime contests, to reach the WCHA Final Five title game where they lost to Denver 2-1 on Saturday. Boston College pulled out a triple overtime win over top-seeded New Hampshire in the Hockey East semifinals and then beat Vermont 4-0 on Saturday to claim the league’s automatic bid.

I wonder really how good Hockey East is this year? New Hampshire, the regular season champions, lost to No. 4 seed and fourth-place team in the CCHA, 7-3 last night in Albany. Hockey East only got two teams in the field of 16, while the WCHA has six and CCHA had four (so far, the power conferences look like this: WCHA 0-2, CCHA 3-0, HE 0-1).

"This year has certainly been a rollercoaster ride with this group," Gophers coach Don Lucia said during his media availability Friday. "We’ve certainly had a lot of things going on and off the ice through the course of this season, but this team has found a way. We worked our way up and got here the hard way by losing the first playoff game to Minnesota State in overtime and winning the next two and getting to the championship game in the Final Five. We’re excited to be in Worcester, playing an exciting team in Boston College, a school with great tradition."

Boston College features the nation’s leading scorer in junior Nathan Gerbe (I call him Mini Me - he's short like Ryan Duncan of North Dakota), who has 28 goals and 29 assists for 57 points. Joe Whitney ranks second nationally with 39 assists and second in scoring among defensemen. Like Minnesota, the Eagles feature a freshman goaltender in John Muse, who has played every minute in goal this season and fashioned a 2.26 goals against average and .919 save percentage (I guess I was wrong - I'd call that tested).

Lucia on Gerbe:
"I watched him at the beginning of the year. He’s a dynamic player. He’s a difference maker, a game breaker. I wish he was on our team. BC’s got a few players like that that we don’t have. If we’re going to have a chance to win, we can’t allow him to get two or three points on the night or it’s going to be awfully difficult. He’s the type of player you want to watch."

Then again, we have our guy in Alex Kangas, who in six postseason games has a 1.21 goals against average and .959 save percentage. Kangas has started 20 straight games and posted a 1.64 goals against average and .940 save percentage with an 8-6-6 record over the span.

His season goals against average has dipped to 1.92 and his save percentage has risen to .932. Both of those numbers rank fifth in the country and second among all freshman goaltenders behind Colorado College’s Richard Bachman (who lost to defending champion Michigan State last night 3-1 - three straight losses to end the season for CC).

I'd expect a 3-2 type of game from these two teams - I just don't see Kangas giving much more than that, and I know the Gophers can't score more than three goals. So, who wins? The Cardiac kids in overtime. This year the Gophers went into 16 overtime games.

Wheeler on OTs:
"I think it will definitely help us, especially if we enter a game where it goes longer than the third period. Playing in those overtimes gives us an edge over others and I think we can use it as an advantage. The experience of being in long games I think will definitely help."

Kangas - same question:
"I feel the same way Blake does, and feel that going into those overtimes this season gives an advantage to us as we enter the tournament. Going deep into regular season games helped bring our team closer together as well."

Minnesota may be the underdog this weekend, but for a team that gets the best each weekend from their opponents, Minnesota might just be proven enough to top Boston College and move into the regional finals.

Did you know? The last time Denver hosted the Frozne Four - Minnesota won the title in 1976. Also, the last time Minnesota lost to the Denver Pioneers in the Final Five championship - Minnesota won the title in 2003.

Embarrassment!!!!!

John Calipari 92, Tom Izzo 74. (Also 50-20 at halftime!).

Bob McKillop 73, Bo Ryan 56.

Both coaches take a hit in stature with thoroughly embarrassing performances on national television. If he wasn't already, Tubby Smith is now to be considered the Big Ten's best coach.

God, it was nice to watch Bo Ryan get shellacked in the second half. Is it wrong for me to totally dislike Bo Ryan? I have less venom for Izzo, but it's hard not to laugh when Michigan State finds itself down 50-20 at halftime!! Wow.

Further proof that the Big Ten was downright awful this season. And that provides further hope that Tubby can take the youngsters next season and improve upon an NIT-bid season this year.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Offseason And Annoucement

Since the long off season is upon us until Tim Brewster's Gophers suit up this fall, the amount of posting is going to decrease at least a little at PJS. I'm going to take the rest of this week off and reinvigorate myself. Many weeks I put a lot of time in here and during the off season I plan to take some time off of posting here or there.

Next week I plan to start a Year in Review on Tubby Smith's Gophers. I'm looking forward to that.

But I also have an announcement and I want to pose a question to those of you who frequent PJS. In the near future (hopefully) I'll be launching a new Golden Gophers Web site along with a partner. The site will be less aesthetically nauseating as a blogspot blog and we hope it will provide all of you with consistent and expansive coverage. In short, we're going to report so the Star Tribune doesn't have to!

We're going to take a professional approach to the new site. I formerly worked as a journalist, so we'll shy away from too many pictures of Erin Andrews (I reserve the right to gawk on special occasions). We also hope, in time, to do some actual reporting. Again, this is an effort to supplement what we see as a job that is not being performed well by our Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers.

But my question for all of you is this: What features, what components, what widgets, etc... would you like to see on a new site? Also, would you like to see more coverage of non-revenue sports? I have some interest in women's basketball. My partner has some interest in men's baseball, for instance. Does that type of coverage interest you? I've hesitated to cover non-revenue sports here, because there never seems to be much interest.

Anyway, this is your chance to shape what will hopefully, eventually be a go-to source for Golden Gophers news an opinion. Fire away.

And, yes, unfortunately this means that PJS will find its way into the Internet dust bin sometime in the near future. **Tears**

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Peaking at the right time

Five games in three days and a trip to Grandma's place later, I return to file my report (by the way, who had Davidson over Georgetown? This guy! I also hit on Villanova to the Sweet 16, San Diego over UCONN and Siena over Vandy. Can't say I had Western Kentucky though).

In sports, there is a beginning, a middle and an end to the season. Some teams get off to a great start and falter down the stretch. Some teams find their stride in the middle of the season, and some find it even later. The Gopher men's hockey team is one of those later teams - a team that has somehow found a way to win when it looked like the season was a miss.

While Minnesota came one goal short of the Broadmoor Cup with a 2-1 loss to Denver in the finals Saturday, what has transpired during the past nine days is the heart and determination of many that is worth a title.

For a team that needed a prayer two weeks ago for a NCAA bid, this morning there was no doubt the Gophers were in after knocking off St. Cloud State (3-2) and Colorado College (2-1) this weekend, one week after dispatching Minnesota State University-Mankato in a three-game series. I'll have more on Boston College and the NCAAs later this week.

For now, let's focus on the Final Five, in which the Gophers became only the fourth team to play three games on the weekend. Like their predecessors, Minnesota wasn't able to complete the weekend sweep as Denver scored two second period goals to win their third Final Five title since 1999.

After Ryan Flynn tipped in a Stu Bickel blast early in the second period to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead, Denver tied the score on a shot from Denver freshman Tyler Bozak, whose shot richcheted off the leg of Gopher defenseman Cade Fairchild past goaltender Alex Kangas.

In the final minute of the period, Minnesota native Tom May scored his second goal of the weekend after getting behind Derek Peltier and stuffing it five-hole on Kangas.

Minnesota actually outshot Denver, but Pioneer goaltender Peter Mannino was in a zone all weekend, coming up with key saves in a period in which the Gophers outshot Denver 14-6. So far in Mannino's career, he is unbeaten against the Gophers.

“Our guys have played a lot of hockey over the past two weeks. I’m really proud of them. Even though we lost, they competed and played hard and I’m proud of them for that. You look at the other teams that have played three games (in the Final Five) and their scores weren’t as close as ours. Denver earned the win and did what they had to do to win,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said.

As my sign said Thursday, the Gophers have done what they have and are still playing because of Kangas, who was chosen as the most valuable player of the tournament. He has given up 15 goals in the past 10 games. This weekend, he made 94 saves on 99 shots.

He had two of his biggest wins Thursday and Friday, in which the Gophers knocked off two NCAA tournament teams in St. Cloud and Colorado. Against State, senior Mike Howe (a St. Cloud native) knocked in a rebound off the back wall with 12 seconds left to upset the Huskies.

The next night, it was freshman Mike Hoeffel, who banged in a shot off a Tiger defenseman in overtime to beat the top seeded team. He also scored a goal in the second period to tie the score.

“This team never ceases to amaze me. It starts with the goaltending. He’s been brilliant and we’re just finding ways to win, "Lucia said following the CC game. “We talked coming into the tournament about the great goalies and expected low-scoring games. I think Mike’s first goal was the big one. They score a power play goal and he comes back a minute later. We kind of played the game we needed to play and we got the lucky bounce. I’m really proud of our guys. We felt as coaches all year this team was close but couldn’t get over the hump. It’s a real credit to our leaders and seniors.”

Now, the Gophers have a few days to prepare for the NCAAs, in which Minnesota faces Hockey East regular season runners-up and conference tournament champion. I haven't seen them since December, in which the Eagles won the Dodge Holiday Classic, but I can tell you they have a freshman goaltender that isn't as proven as Kangas. That could play into the Gophers hands.

One thing is for sure, if the Gophers score three goals, they'll win right now. It all starts with 5-on-5 play, but the power play has to start getting more chances. The past two weekends, the Gophers are 1-26 on the power play (however, opponents were only 2-17 this past weekend.) with the only goal coming on a 5-on-3 rebound goal by Evan Kauffman against St. Cloud State.

The first round game in the Northeast Regional is set for Saturday at 6:30 p.m. (central time). Top-seeded Miami (Ohio) and fourth-seeded Air Force meet in the first game on Saturday at 3 p.m. (central) with the winners to play on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. (central) for a berth in the Frozen Four April 10 and 12 in Denver. The first round game will be televised nationally by ESPNU and shown on tape delay on Saturday night at midnight. The regional title game will be shown live on Sunday on ESPNU.

Again, more to come later this week.

Gophers Draw Boston College In NCAA Hockey Tourney

A few weeks ago there was a distinct possibility the Gophers men's hockey team would be on the outside looking in when the NCAA announced who would compete to get to the Frozen Four.

A hot run spurred by goaltender Alex Kangas later and the Gophers sat comfortably, one would assume, Sunday morning when the 10 at-large NCAA bids were announced. The Gophers narrowly missed the automatic bid after falling 2-1 to Denver in the WCHA championship game Saturday night.

The Gophers were given a 3 seed in the Northeast bracket, a draw that pits them against Boston College. Should the Gophers advance from the first round, they would play the winner of Miami (Ohio) and Air Force. This region plays it's games in Worcester, MA.

Perhaps the surprise of the NCAA bracket is the snub of Minnesota State-Mankato in favor of Wisconsin. The Badgers are a sub- .500 team and the Mavericks, who the Gophers beat in a 3-game playoff last week, were most likely the last team out.

I imagine Eric (aka The Sports Guy) will be around at some point to actually provide some insight into the men's hockey team.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Alex We Trust

And, then there was five left in the WCHA. Today marks the beginning of the WCHA Final Five, which pits five likely NCAA teams in one building (Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul). You have two teams battling for No. 1 seeds in Colorado College and North Dakota. Denver and St. Cloud State are trying to hang on to No. 2 seeds, while Minnesota is trying to give themselves some breathing room from the Pairwise cutoff line.

What does this mean? One heck of a weekend - five games in three days with one champion to be crowned.

It will be hard to top last year's finale, in which Blake Wheeler's unbelieveable diving shot won the championship for the Gophers. Who might be able to top that score? Freshman goaltender Alex Kangas.


Last weekend, Kangas made 115 saves on 119 shots - yes, that's a save percentage of 96.5%. For the season, his goals against average is 1.95 and his save percentage is 93% (both school records). Can he keep the streak going? He will have to for this offensive-challenged to move on.

In tonight's play-in game, St. Cloud State and its trio of stars - Ryan Lasch, Garrett Roe and Andreas Nodl - is riding high after sweeping Wisconsin on its home ice last weekend. Even goaltender Jase Waslowsky has been playing well lately after struggling with consistency for the first half of the season.

St. Cloud State is 8-1-2 in their last 11 games,and 4-0-3 against Minnesota — their longest unbeaten streak in the all-time series - since an 8-7 semifinal win in the 2006 Final Five. They beat the Gophers 3-1 on Jan. 11 at Mariucci Arena, then skated to a 4-4 tie the next night at the National Hockey Center.

I'll be down at the X for the Gophers 3-2 win tonight (that's a prediction). I see Colorado College and North Dakota in the finals with CC winning it all. All the action is on FSN.

To read more about tonight and this weekend - I give you links:
St. Cloud Times

St. Cloud TimesII

Star Tribune

Pioneer Press

Notes:
Mankato player Jason Wiley, who elbowed Tom Pohl in the head, causing him to lose his helmet and forcing him into the boards last Sunday, visited Pohl in Rochester yesterday. What a classy move. I heard Wiley was pretty distraught after finding out Pohl had a skull fracture and had bleeding in the brain. Again, love to see the class.

To read more:
Star Tribune

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Terps End Minnesota's Season

Tubby Smith's first season as Minnesota head man came to a close Tuesday night in very anti-climatic fashion. The athletically superior Maryland Terrapins took control in the second half and cruised to a first round NIT victory.

The final game ended with three senior leaders watching from the bench. Lawrence McKenzie played just for a minute or two during the second half due to a bum foot. Dan Coleman went scoreless in his finale as a Gopher, again besieged by foul trouble and an inability to provide offense against athletic foes. And Spencer Tollackson couldn't stand to watch the final seconds, his head lowered as his college basketball career slipped away.

For whatever reason ESPN was going in and out last night on my DirecTV satellite, so I'm not going to break down the loss. Fact is, however, this team might have overachieved this season. One year ago the Gophers were 9-22, without a coach and with talent that many of us thought would be susceptible to a team like Winona State.

Unlike the situation at Michigan, this wasn't a complete throw-away season. The Gophers competed. We saw drastic improvement on defense and a 180 degree change in attitude. Instead of refusing to apply defensive pressure because of concerns about a lack of talent, Tubby Smith turned the Gophers into a team known for its defense.

Fact is, Tubby Smith got so much more out of this crew than Dan Monson did, it should serve as a reminder as to why many of us wanted Monson out. Damian Johnson, once considered a bust even by me, was flying around Williams Arena last night. I can't wait to watch his progression over the next two seasons.

Over the course of the next few months, I'm going to look ahead to next season. But before I do that, I'm going to put together a short series on the season that was. I'll look at the careers of the three departing seniors, the change in attitude surrounding the program and Tubby Smith's impact and style.

Until then, feel free to provide your post-mortem on the season below.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Gophers Draw Terrapins In NIT Opener

PJS Note: Before we delve into the National Invitation Tournament, I want to direct your attention to Down with Goldy, the sarcastic Gophers blogger. DWG is hosting a NCAA Tournament bracket challenge, replete with prizes, or so at least that is alleged. I was going to host one myself, but seeing no reason to double-dip, I instead encourage joining DWG's bracket challenge. Your favorite Minnesota bloggers--Gopher Nation, DWG, PJS, From the Barn, and various readers--have at least been invited to participate. Hopefully you'll join the fun.

Now, on to the NIT!

The Gophers have been given a 4-seed in the NIT and will host Maryland Tuesday night at 9:30 eastern time. Should the Gophers survive they most likely will face Syracuse.

Typically I'm uninterested in the NIT, but the great coaches just in this portion of the NIT bracket provide some interesting story lines. Tubby Smith versus Gary Williams, two coaches with large bling on their fingers meet in Minneapolis. And one of those coaches will likely face Jim Boeheim in the second round. Those three could just as easily be in the Final Four together.

In various reports, Tubby Smith made a case for why the Gophers should be in the big boys tournament. He said, in part, the Gophers were playing their best basketball at the end of the season. Tubby had to make these statements, but that doesn't mean the Gophers deserved an NCAA bid. They didn't. In fact, if it weren't for a cream-puff filled non-conference schedule, the Gophers wouldn't be in the NIT either.

Minnesota's only signature win of the year came last week via the Hoffarber Miracle. Glorious as it was, that simply wasn't enough for a team that went 8-10 in conference play and lost to Illinois three times.

In Maryland, the Gophers face a team that can actually beat Illinois (the Terps beat the Illini 69-61 in November). But the Terps have fallen flat down the homestretch, losing six of their final eight games, with lone wins coming against Florida State and Wake Forest.

And while Minnesota is the home team, I feel Maryland is the favorite. The Terrapins competed in a more athletic and deeper league in the ACC. The Terrapins aren't a great shooting team, in fact they are at or near the bottom of the ACC in many shooting categories. They have some quality guards in sophomore Greivis Vasquez (who leads the Terps in scoring) and sophomore Eric Hayes. Senior forward James Gist, a 6'9 235 pound big man, gives the Terps an inside presence.

The Terps were an average ACC team. The Gophers were an average, to below average Big 10 team. I give the advantage to the ACC team.

That said, I'm going to watch the Gophers' offense closely. Some of us in the blogosphere have begun to look warily at the offensive sets the Gophers are running. We've begun to question Minnesota's inability to get quality looks coming out of timeouts. We can write some of this off to a lack of talent and athleticism, but I'll be paying close attention to whether or not there is any indication of cohesiveness on offense.

Finally, I'm really going to watch Damian Johnson and Lawrence Westbrook. These two players have the defensive ability to shut down an opponents top threat. But they also need to look to take over games offensively. I'd like to see Johnson be aggressive in the post and Westbrook to pick and choose his opportunities wisely. Westbrook needs to stay under control, yet attack when the opportunity is right. That's a tough middle ground.

For the faithful at The Barn, this is one last chance to watch Dan Coleman, Lawrence McKenzie and Spencer Tollackson. Talent-wise, they might not be missed. But all three would seem to have represented the U well.

Prediction: Maryland beat North Carolina, the NCAA's #1 overall seed. A win against Maryland would surely indicate the Gophers are the best team in college basketball. I don't think that's the case. Pick: Terps 78, Minnesota 62.

Pohl's injury more serious than thought

University of Minnesota senior Tom Pohl is in intensive care following surgery resulting from an injury suffered in the Golden Gophers’ double overtime victory over Minnesota State on Sunday in Mankato.

Pohl sustained a skull fracture when his head hit the boards in front of the team’s bench at 6:09 of the second period. The injury resulted in bleeding on the brain and Pohl was airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester . Successful surgery was performed to stop the bleeding and stabilize the fracture. Pohl remains at the hospital for further observation.

“We are very fortunate that he has tremendous medical care,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who is in Rochester with Pohl and his family. “We’re looking forward to him returning to school at one hundred percent and our thoughts and prayers remain with Tom and the Pohl family.”

More on the Trib Web site:
http://www.startribune.com/sports/gophers/16749081.html

St. Paul bound for Gophers

Five overtime sessions and more than 262 minutes of hockey later, the seventh seeded Minnesota Gopher hockey team is heading to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five.

It was an improbable way to end a series that the fourth seeded Minnesota State University-Mankato squad looked to be in control with after a 1-0 double overtime win in game one.

But a Gophers 2-1 overtime win Saturday set the stage for the rubber match, and nearly five periods into the game, a Tony Lucia rebound goal beat Maverick netminder Mike Zacharias, setting off a celebration that rivaled last year's Final Five championship win a season ago.

As Gophers coach Don Lucia said, it was a remarkable series from both teams and both goaltenders. Freshman Alex Kangas made 115 saves on 119 shots - yes, that's a remarkable save percentage of .966 with a goals against average of 1.33. His season marks should be good enough to break both school records, including the save percentage record that has been in the books since 1957.

The Gophers are headed to St. Paul because of Kangas, who according to announcer and former state champion goaltender Kevin Gorg, had the most remarkable weekend of hockey he's seen in 25 years. Kangas is this team's MVP, and is the reason they could win one or two, or maybe even three games at the X.

While Kangas was the story this weekend, the offense picked up a bit after struggling Friday night. Mike Carman and the second line got a game-winner Saturday. Justin Bostrom and the fourth liners also added one. Tonight, it was Jay Barriball, who returned from a two week absence, Lucia's game winner and Patrick White's second period goal.

I've been really down on Mr. Hockey 2007 star from Grand Rapids, but he has elevated his play the past month, scoring four goals in four weeks after scoring just two in the first three months. He still might be a little weak on the puck, but he is creating opportunities, which is something the offensively challenged Gophers need.

Still, Minnesota was 0-for-13 on the power play this weekend, while two of four Maverick goals came with the man advantage. Mankato even got the winner Friday short-handed. Minnesota can't win without a better power play.

Hats off to the D corp, which features three freshman, for a great weekend. I was really impressed with them in front of the net. They didn't allow the Mavericks many chances in front.

I also should mention that senior Tom Pohl, who left on a stretcher in the second period, appears to have a broken nose and a severe concussion after his helmetless head slammed on the wall in front of the bench. Pohl may not score many goals, but he is "charlie hustle" and is a good penalty kill guy. The injury will force freshman Drew Fisher into action now.

So, what's next? The St. Cloud State Huskies. Another inter-state rival. Game is Thursday night at the X. The Huskies swept Wisconsin, while Denver, Colorado and North Dakota all advanced as well. More on the Final Five later this week.

Until then, ski-u-mah. Go Gophers! Rah!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Offensive Woes End Minnesota's Run

Make it 20 straight times the Illinois Illini have beaten Minnesota. That's absolutely amazing.

But the loss on Saturday afternoon, in front of a nationally televised audience, was probably the most painful of any loss to the orange and blue during that stretch. A win and the Gophers would have taken on border rival Wisconsin for a chance to sneak into the NCAA Tournament and steal a Big Ten Tournament Championship. Instead, those opportunities go to Illinois.

The Saturday afternoon matinee was entirely painful to watch. Neither team played with much poise or crispness. The Gophers couldn't buy a basket for the first eight or so minutes of the game as Illinois built a lead. But the Gophers crept back, as Illinois went cold in the beginning of the second half. The Gophers eventually tied the game 32-32 midway through the second half, but could never take a lead.

Minnesota's defense was OK, in that it actually shut down Trent Meachem for the first time this season. The Gophers did this by abandoning their strategy in the first two games this season. Instead of playing a 2-3 zone, the Gophers stuck with their man to man defense. It was the right call, but on the other end of the court the Gophers continued to be stagnant.

I've tried to question how the Tubby Smith offense has presented itself late this year but I haven't given it as much play as perhaps it deserves. Our friends at Hoopraker, from their perch in Conseco during the Indiana game, picked up on something I had been mentioning in passing for awhile. And it deserves further thought. Here's what Hoopraker stated:

"Though it is premature to make any kind of final pronouncement about the nature of Tubby Ball in Gopherland, his team’s offensive characteristics seem to also be mostly freelance in nature. There is a lot of desultory dribbling, not a lot of movement without the ball, and more often than not, the offense is reduced to one player trying to make a play on his own.

Fortunately, rapidly emerging players like Damian Johnson are making their share of plays. Certainly McKenzie and Westbrook enjoy dominating the ball and also have the athleticism to play one-on-one offense, sometimes to good effect. Somewhat dispiriting however was the number of times the Gophers were reduced to awkward, disorganized sets out of timeouts.

For the forseeable future as Tubby brings in deeper, more talented rosters, the results may well be commensurate or better. Against Illinois today, though, a team that will bring one of the best team defenses to the battle, it will be interesting to see how Tubby’s offense fares."

Tubby's offense didn't fare very well against Illinois. The offense was relegated to one-on-one plays and high screen and rolls. For the game, the Gophers shot 39 percent from the floor.

What was more distressing, as Hoopraker mentioned, was the inability for the Gophers to get anything tangible coming out of timeouts. The Hoffarber Heave aside, the Gophers have been miserable scoring out of timeouts all season, and that trend hurt against Illinois down the stretch. Tubby might be a tactician, and he sure mixed and matched well against Indiana Friday night, but for the season, I have been less than impressed with his offensive schemes. I'm not sure there were any.

Lawrence McKenzie led the Gophers with 13 points Saturday, despite forcing his offense at times. Dan Coleman added six, but found himself in foul trouble again. Damian Johnson had eight, but had opportunities to be that second double-digit scorer the Gophers needed, but he couldn't deliver. Lawrence Westbrook, penetrating on isolations, added six points but was also out of control at times.

I tend to give Tubby a break on the offensive woes because the talent level is so lean. Aside from McKenzie, the Gophers don't have another pure offensive talent. Johnson is raw. Westbrook is maturing. Coleman disappears. Hoffarber and Abu-Shamala are one dimensional.

Finally, I'd just like to add that taking this team, almost the same team that was 9-22 last season, to the conference semi-finals is quite an accomplishment, whether or not the offense is pretty. Once again Tubby Smith has 20 wins an his team will get a chance to play postseason basketball in the NIT.

Let's just hope that the newbies coming in next season--Ralph Sampson III, Devoe Joseph and company--can find a way to beat Illinois.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hoffarber Hangover, And A Look At Illinois

So, what a night! I was so riled up I had a hard time getting to sleep. I wonder what it must have been like for Minnesota's buzzer-beater extraordinaire and his jubilant teammates.

This post will both take a look at what is being said about last night's stunner and also preview the Illinois semi-final today. Yes, semi-final. The Gophers are in the semi-finals.

First, a look at what what is being said across the country. Links below are a snippet of the coverage after last night's thriller. (I tried to limit this because there is loads of commentary. But if you see anything else good, please add it in the comments).

Gopher Nation: Breaking Down the Box
Inside the Hall: Did that just happen? Yes it did.
Larry Brown Sports: Blake Hoffarber the new Laettner.
Yet Another Basketball Blog: Jaw Dropping Ending.
CBSSports: Standing Up, Sitting Down, Hoffarber's Best Around.
Indianapolis Star (Bob Kravitz): More than loss, IU is lost.
ESPN (Pat Forde): Minnesota's miracle worker makes his second shot for the ages.
Indianapolis Star (Terry Hutchens): Final play negates IU comeback.
Down with Goldy: March to a title, Game 2 (Praises Blake for comments to Erin Andrews!)

Ilinois vs. Minnesota
Gametime: Approximately 4 p.m. eastern time.
Television: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz and Billy Packer

OK, now that the morning coffee has went down, let's start talking about Illinois. Yes, that Illinois. The 10-seed that has somehow beaten the Gophers 19 straight times. That is, obviously, the longest of any such streak in the Big Ten.

To be fair, Illinois has had some very good teams in recent years. Bill Self built a mini-juggernaut and Bruce Weber inherited a very solid group. But this year's version of Illini, in part because of lackluster recruiting on Weber's part, took multiple steps backward. That's not to say the Illini don't have some talent, but only that Weber wasn't able to reload with blue chippers.

Illinois, like Minnesota, has senior leaders. Shaun Pruitt, a thick, banging center leads the team with 12.8 points and 7 rebounds per game. He's a tough match up for Minnesota because he's too quick for Tollackson and too bruising for Coleman. (I got an idea, how bout we throw Travis Busch at him!)

Brian Randle is another senior forward, who is sort of like Illinois version of Dan Coleman, except not as skilled offensively. But Randle plays incredibly hard, and along with Pruitt forms an experienced front line that like DJ White and Deandre Thomas, will be tough for Minnesota's depleted front line.

And then there is junior Trent Meachem, Gopher Killer. In two games against Minnesota this season, Meachem has scored 19 and 21 points respectively. In the most recent match-up, Meachem killed Minnesota from three point land, as the Gophers tried to exploit Illinois' tendency to shoot a low percentage from outside.

That has been twenty-win Tubby's strategy against Illinois in two games this season. Because the Illini shot a league-worst percentage from three point land in the conference on the season, Tubby has put the Gophers in a 2-3 zone for much of the time against Illinois. In both games, it backfired. In the regular season finale at Illinois, the Illini shot 53 percent from three. And earlier in the season, when Illinois came into Wiliams Arena and blew the Gophers out 84-60, the Illini shot, again, 53 percent. Meachem was 5-5.

So, here's hoping the Gophers employ a different strategy today. All season the Gophers have been at their best when they were playing a ferocious man to man defense. At times, the effort wasn't always there. But against Indiana it was, and the guards were able to stymie Eric Gordon and the Indiana guards. I think a similar strategy, including some full court pressure, would be wise today.

Keys:

1. Will Spencer Tollackson play? I've had so many bum ankles and when its tender (as I imagine Spencer's is) you can play if you can withstand the pain. He won't be able to elevate (but he never really could anyway). The question is, are the Gophers better off without him? Nah, he can give good minutes. Perhaps he helps us more in a limited role when he doesn't force shots on the interior.

2. Foul trouble. Even if Tollackson plays, the Gophers will have three healthy and one gimpy big men. Dan Coleman picked up two fouls in two minutes of each half against Indiana. That's inexcusable. The Gophers need him on the floor for 30+ minutes, not almost 10. Same goes for Damian Johnson and Jon Williams. The bangers need to bang but use their fouls wisely.

3. Another scoring option: In two Big Ten Tournament games, the Gophers have had someone step up. Against Northwestern, it was Lawrence Westbrook who put the team on his back during a second half comeback. Against Indiana, it was Damian Johnson who took some of the scoring load off of seniors McKenzie and Coleman. Someone needs to step up again.

4. Consistent play from Al Nolen: The freshman point guard continues to have moments of brilliance and moments of shear ineptitude. He needs to play even, and realize he's not an outside shooter. He needs to get the Gophers into their offense quickly and not turn the ball over.

5. Finally, scoring out of the press break. In two games this year the Illlini have thrown the Gophers a relatively mundane 2-2-1, three-quarter court press. The Gophers have been happy to methodically bring the ball up against the Illini, only on occasion looking to exploit the trapping zone for easy baskets. If the Gophers don't beat the press, beat it easily and score off of it, the Illini will dictate tempo as they have in the two previous games.

Prediction: Both teams are likely exhausted. As emotional as the Minnesota win was, Illinois went to overtime to beat Purdue. The Gophers can beat Illinois and there is no better time to get the monkey off of their back than in the conference semi-finals. I look for McKenzie to come up big, and Westbrook to play with the chip on his shoulder he did against Northwestern and against Indiana in spurts Friday night. Minnesota 62, Illinois 58.

Hoffarber's Heroics, Johnson's Tenacity Lead To Upset

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Michael Corleone, Godfather III.

I wrote this team off earlier this week. I said something like "They are what they are," suggesting they can beat cupcakes and can't pull off an upset.

I wrote this team off tonight. After building a huge lead and causing havoc on my emotions in an up and down second half, the Gophers all but handed the game to DJ White and the Indiana Hoosiers.

And then Blake Hoffarber, he of ESPY fame, hit a shot that no Minnesota fan will ever forget. The Gophers shouldn't have been down 58-57 with 1.5 seconds left, but they were. So, Tubby Smith diagrammed a play to get down the court and get a desperation shot off. He diagrammed a play for Dan Coleman. Travis Busch lofted a pass. Hoffarber rose adjacent to the foul line, caught the lob pass, pivoted to his left, and put up a high arcing prayer.

It was answered and the Gophers did what they couldn't do all season, and something they hadn't done in years: Upset a favored, ranked opponent. Final: Minnesota 59, Indiana 58. It took a Laettner-esque play, but we'll take it!

Hoffarber's heroics caused the Minnesota bench to explode. Lawrence McKenzie, Lawrence Westbrook, and everyone else, swarmed Hoffarber in the far corner of the gymnasium. Tubby Smith, ohhhhh, Tubby Smith, the man can jump. He leaped with joy, probably shocked, and was quickly surrounded by Vince Taylor and a jubiliantly round Joe Esposito. All because a freshman sharpshooter had given his team a ticket to play another meaningful game.

And while Hoffarber will steal the highlights on the various networks and the headlines in the papers tomorrow, what might get overlooked is the Gophers played, undermanned mind you, their best game of the season. They jumped out to a 16 point lead in the first half. How?

Amazingly, with Spencer Tollackson sitting out with a bum ankle, the Gophers beat up on Indiana on the glass in the first half. And what makes this even more miraculous is Dan Coleman found himself on the bench just two minutes into the game. That left Damian Johnson and Jon Williams to play big minutes against Indiana's tough front line. They couldn't stop DJ White, but along with a group of guards that battled and won the war on the boards in the first half.

The Gophers had twice the energy of the Hoosiers in the early going. Lawrence McKenzie was flying around and hitting in transition. Johnson scored seven of the first nine points and played the role Lawrence Westbrook did against Northwestern a day earlier. Johnson finished with 17 points, a career-high, and he created multiple second chance opportunities that were very needed down the stretch.

Indiana eventually calmed down. Interim head coach Dan Dakich went to a big lineup, as both Coleman and Johnson found themselves on the bench with foul trouble. Deandre Thomas--who reminds me a lot of a slimmer Oliver Miller--played huge minutes alongside DJ White. It was during the second 10 minutes of the first half that Thomas and White carried the Hoosiers back into the game. It was hard for them to do anything but exploit Minnesota's size disadvantage.

Consider the lineup we were playing at this point: Westbrook, McKenzie, Nolen, Travis Busch and Williams. Yes, Travis Busch. Don't laugh. His minutes were huge. Tubby first tried Jamal Abu-Shamala in this role. JAS quickly showed he didn't have the mettle to battle with the IU big men. Busch did.

Despite all of that hard work in the first half, Indiana crept back in the game. Down seven at halftime, the Hoosiers scored the first seven of the second half--the Gophers went scoreless for about the first five minutes. But then the Gophers settled down--despite Dan Coleman picking up two more quick fouls.

Again it was Johnson creating hustle scores. McKenzie rose for a clutch three. And all of a sudden we were in crunch time, and despite our best efforts to give the Hoosiers the game, the Gophers walked out victorious.

In reality, the Gophers should have won by five or so. Up two with 10 seconds left, Al Nolen found a wide open Coleman under the basket. Instead of going up strong, Coleman reverted to his tendency to play soft and tried to sneak a layup passed DJ White. It wasn't happening. White blocked the shot. After a timeout, Eric Gordon drove the length of the floor and drew a foul with 3.5 left on the clock. He missed both free throws, but White pushed Williams out of his way and tipped in the rebound and drew a foul. All of a sudden it's 57-57 with 3.1 left and White with a chance to give the Hoosiers the lead. But .... he missed. Whew.

Not really. White goes over the back of McKenzie and gets his own rebound and the zebras decided that McKenzie had fouled White. Two more tries to ice it. First shot? Miss. Second? Make.

And just when I had written this team off yet again, Hoffarber delivers unexpected heroics I'll never forget.

Some Likely Repetitive Superlatives:

Damian Johnson: He hit from the outside. He made his free throws. He threw his body on the floor for loose balls. He did this playing almost every minute out sized at the power forward position. If Lawrence Westbrook was the surprise player who carried Minnesota versus Northwestern, it was Johnson who picked up the slack against Indiana. Johnson scored a career-high 17 points before fouling out late in the second half. Ya'll understand why I loved him all season?

Travis Busch: I know, I know, I'm part of the peanut gallery who questions why he ever plays. But with Tollackson out, with Coleman in quick foul trouble in each half, with Williams, Coleman and Johnson each with four fouls, it was Busch who came in and battle with Deandre Thomas and DJ White. Jabal Abu-Shamala had his chance, but he refused to play physical. Not Busch. This guy was game. He made at least one brain dead pass, but his hustle and his willingness to throw his body into much bigger men was quite impressive.

Hustle: All around. 40 minutes. For the first time all season. Great to see.

Some criticisms

Dan Coleman: He picked up two quick--like in two minutes--first half fouls and sat the remainder of the half. Second half, different story, right? Wrong. Two minutes. This time two absolutely silly fouls. He hammered DJ White on a clear breakaway on one of them. Young man gotsta play smarter than that. Worse, perhaps, is with the game on the line, at the end of a scrambled possessions with 10 seconds left in the game with the Gophers up 57-55, Al Nolen found Coleman with a clear path to the basket. Coleman ducked, went up weak, and found a waiting DJ White to send his shot back. Coleman takes this ball up strong. Takes it up to throw it down and the game would have been over.

One Man Back: Multiple times tonight the Gophers gave the Hoosiers easy hoops on breakouts. I imagine this happened in part because the Gophers were concentrating on crashing the boards because they were without big men most of the night. Nonetheless, these are mental mistakes and need to be corrected.

Up Next: The Gophers face those pesky 10th seeded Illinois Illini for the right to play in the Big Ten title game. Minnesota #6 vs. Illinois #10. Minnesota favored, right? Wrong. Illinois has beaten Minnesota an astonishing 19 straight times. Nevermind the cliche about beating teams three straight times. Try 20? I'll try and recoup for a preview in the morning, and the Gophers ought to be doing the same. They are back on the floor Saturday afternoon for a chance to play for the Big Ten championship.



Just when I thought they were done .....

Friday, March 14, 2008

Keys For Gophers Against Indiana

When the Gophers tip off at 9pm eastern time tonight (or thereabouts), the Indiana Hoosiers will be looking to beat the Gophers for the third time this season. A common cliche tells us that is no easy task, but given the talent differential, the Hoosiers would have a decided advantage no matter how many times in a row they had beaten Minnesota.

Eric Gordon is the best player in the Big Ten. While the Gophers have actually done better than most in slowing him on offense, he found numerous ways to beat the Gophers in the teams meeting most recently at Assembly Hall. While Gordon's shot wasn't falling, he'd penetrate and get himself to the foul line. Or, he'd penetrate and quickly adjust to the collapsing defense and kick to a wide open three point shooter.

Key #1 for the Gophers tonight is to keep Gordon in front of them. This is no easy task. He's shifty, deceptively quick and the Gophers don't have the type of shut-down defender needed to stop all parts of Gordon's game. Lawrence Westbrook drew the defensive match up in the last meeting most of the time and he did well to force Gordon to use the dribble. That's all well and good, but the Gophers either need to rotate much more efficiently when Gordon penetrates and kicks or Westbrook needs to both force Gordon to dribble and keep him in front. Limiting Gordon might be the biggest key tonight. We won't be able to stop him completely, but if we can limit his outside shooting and rebounding some, the Gophers have a chance.

Key #2 for the Gophers is finding a way to keep up with DJ White and company on the glass. With Spencer Tollackson iffy at best, the Gophers will have to rely on two forwards not known for banging in Dan Coleman and Damian Johnson. Jon Williams will be the biggest body we can throw out there, but he is prone to so many mistakes in other aspects of the game. That means all five players need to crash the boards defensively the way Westbrook, Blake Hoffarber, Al Nolen and others did in the second half against Northwestern. In Indiana, the Hoosiers killed the Gophers on second chance points. If that happens again, the Gophers have no chance.

Key #3 for the Gophers is offensive consistency. Playing 10 to 20 minutes of miserable basketball might not kill you against a team like Northwestern. It will against Indiana. And this is most important on the offensive end. The Gophers need to create offense early, be aggressive, draw contact and get to the line. Dan Coleman, Lawrence Westbrook and Lawrence McKenzie need to get going quickly. If those three are all in double digits, the Gophers have a decent shot at making the upset. The Gophers also need to have in inside presence. That means giving the ball to Coleman or Johnson in the post. We can't be completely perimeter oriented against the Hoosiers.

Key #4 for the Gophers is coaching. Tubby Smith has so much more experience than Dan Dakich that he really ought to be able to coach circles around the interim Indiana head man. Maybe we'll see this play out with the Gophers switching up defenses regularly, doubling Gordon or White when necessary and simply managing the game. Pay close attention to the first five minutes of each half and the last five minutes of the first half. Who is controlling the tempo here? Who wastes momentum building possessions and which coach best manages the game? It better be Tubby!

Finally, key #5 is passion. The first half against Northwestern was beyond distressing. It was one thing, inexcusable though it was, for Dan Coleman to get beat on multiple back doors. It was quite another for the entire team to be flat for 20 minutes. This is the Big Ten Tournament fellas, it's time to lay it all out there. On Every Possession. Indiana is sort of down on its luck, and could be prone for an upset. It won't happen if the Gophers don't play every possession as if it were there last.

Prediction: I've twice picked the Gophers to upset Indiana this season and twice I've been so wrong. Hopefully I'll be wrong again here because I'm picking the Hoosiers. The Gophers have still not but together 40 full minutes of strong play and have yet to do what it takes to upset anyone. It's hard to predict that will start tonight. Pick: Indiana 65, Minnesota 58.

Weekend Series Prep: Minnesota at MSU-Mankato

Series: Minnesota leads the all-time series 25-2-5.
Drop of the puck: Friday: 7:07 p.m; Saturday: 7:07 p.m. central time (Sunday, if necessary TBA)
Television: Friday and Saturday are live on FSN North.

Announcers: Frank Mazzocco and Doug Woog
PTFG Prediction: Minnesota is 17-0-3 against Mankato in the last 20 encounters, so I say the Gophers win in three.

Rankings:

Pairwise: Mankato 11, Minnesota 12
USCHO.com: Mankato 10, Minnesota 15
USA Today: Mankato 11, Minnesota 15
Krach: Mankato 10, Minnesota 11

Articles:

Star Tribune: Roman Augustoviz takes a different angle, talking to Mankato West's coach Ken Essay, a former Mankato player.

Pioneer Press: Bruce Brothers features freshman Mike Hoeffel.

Minnesota Daily: Brian Deutsch breaks dwon the WCHA first round.

Weekend outlook: The teams played twice this season with Minnesota winning 4-3 in Mankato on Nov. 9 and 5-3 in Minneapolis on Nov. 10. It was the only series among 14 WCHA weekends that the Gophers swept this season.

Gophers at a glance: The Gophers and Mavericks are locked in a tight race in the PairWise rankings, which are highly-regarded in the NCAA tournament selection process. Minnesota is currently ranked 12th and Minnesota State is ranked 11th. A lot of it could come down to what Boston University, Duluth, Notre Dame and Wisconsin do this weekend, but a sweep one way or another could knock one of the teams from the NCAA picture.

The NCAA selects 16 teams to the field, though some bids are automatically awarded to conference tournament champions which are not in the top 16 of the PairWise rankings.

Minnesota is opening the WCHA playoffs on the road for just the third time since their most recent seventh place finish in 1976-77. The Gophers also went on the road in 1999-2000 at Colorado College and 1997-98 at Minnesota Duluth. They were seeded sixth in both of those previous road appearances. Minnesota swept the series at Colorado College and lost in three games at Minnesota Duluth, dropping the third game in overtime.

The Gophers have qualified for the WCHA Final Five nine straight years and all but one year since the format began in 1992-93. The only time Minnesota failed to reach the Final Five was in 1997-98 when it lost in three games to Minnesota Duluth.

It sure would be weird to not have the Gophers at the Final Five, but honestly I could see it happen. Minnesota has been playing much better the past three weekends (note: scoring more goals and still getting good goaltending), but Mankato hasn't been too shabby either.

I think this weekend comes down to two things: special teams and goaltending.

Mankato at a glance: Minnesota State was 3-6-2 overall and 1-6-2 in the WCHA at the end of November, but the Mavericks have been one of the league’s best teams since. They own a 15-8-2 overall record and 11-6-2 WCHA record over the past three months, earning their second home postseason series and first since 2002-03 when they beat Wisconsin in two games for their most recent Final Five appearance.

Trevor Bruess has eight goals and 20 assists for 28 points, while Mick Berge has 19 goals and six assists for 25 points. Mike Zacharias has started 26 straight games and has a 2.21 goals against average and .920 save percentage.

Did you know? Minnesota has won all four postseason meetings between the two teams as the Gophers swept a first round series in 2004-05 and beat the Mavericks in the 2000 Final Five first round and 2003 Final Five semifinals.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

On Verge Of Embarassment, Gophers Survive

The only way to adequately describe how the Gophers beat Northwestern 55-52 Thursday afternoon in the Big Ten Tournament is to take a look two entirely different halves.

But before I break down what went so horribly wrong in the first half--which found the Gophers down 16 at one point--and what transpired to enable such a good comeback, I need to spend a minute praising Lawrence Westbrook.

The sophomore shooting guard, who has been playing in the shadow of the more experienced Lawrence McKenzie, took over in the second half at a time the Gophers desperately needed a go-to player. When the Gophers needed it most, Westbrook created his own shot. He rebounded and immediately pushed tempo. He hit from the outside once the Northwestern defenders starting flying by him, he pumped, hopped and hit a mid-range jumper. Heading into a likely NIT bid at some point, and more importantly next season, Westbrook needs to play with a scorers mindset all of the time. Westbrook put up a career-high 17 points. He's the reason the Gophers have a chance to beat Indiana on Friday.

Now, on to a tale of two halves.

First Half: The Gophers went into the locker room at halftime trailing 34-21. When the Gophers played their once tenacious man defense, the Northwestern back doors were devastatingly efficient. When the Gophers went to zone, much like against Illinois, the Gophers couldn't close out on shooters. The Gophers had nothing. No inside offense. No penetration. Only one-on-one and high screens. Our offense looked like an offense the girls team from Eastview, no, Chisago, might be working out the kinks on in an early season scrimmage in Cloquet.

Just for the record, this was just the ninth time this season Bill Carmody's bottom-feeding Wildcats went into the halftime locker room with a lead.

Things were so ugly that the benchwarmer Travis Busch made an appearance. Yes, it was that ugly. Complicating matters was an early ankle injury to Spencer Tollackson. Normally, this isn't a huge loss. But one advantage Minnesota had in two previous lopsided wins against Northwestern was height and an inside game. Without Tollackson, in the first half, the Gophers did nothing to exploit a still decided size advantage.

Obviously then, with Northwestern embarrassing the Gophers, the quite bored ESPN announcers began to talk about the dreaded Tubby Smith stare. Erin Andrews' presence was really the only upside in the first half, and she told us all about the vaunted stare. Said stare was in full effect.

I guess it worked.

Second Half: The Gophers came out in an extended and active 2-3 zone. Shots were contested now. The forwards attacked the glass for rebounds. And Northwestern was rushing it's offense. Instead of taking a good 20-30 seconds off the shot clock, the Wildcats were forced into tougher shots. And they actually started to miss.

On offense, the energy was now present. Cuts were crisp. Shot selection improved dramatically. Westbrook, for the first eight minutes or so of the half took over. He did everything the Gophers needed to get the Gophers back in the game. When he missed, Dan Coleman grabbed a key offensive rebound--and the Gophers during the second half had an entirely different sort of aggression on the offensive glass.

But as soon as Westbrook led the huge charge to get the game knotted at 42-42 with about 10 minutes to play, the Gophers, maybe exhausted from the furious comeback, went cold. Northwestern, still cold itself, pushed ahead to a 47-42 lead. As the clock ticked down, with about five minutes to play, the game resembled so many others that the Gophers had played in this year. In the past, the Gophers have fallen behind, busted their butts to claw back and then faded away. But this time the Gophers had enough moxie to finish the job.

Down five, the Gophers extended pressure full court. Northwestern started turning the ball over: 10 second counts, over and back. And with Northwestern back up one point in the last two minutes, Coleman picked off a lazy pass at the free throw line on defense and sprinted the length of the floor--pausing to pull up his shorts momentarily--and slammed the ball home.

The Wildcats had chances to win, but the Gophers now tenacious, arms-in-passing lanes, fast rotating defense pressured bad shots. And down the stretch Blake Hoffarber, who hit a timely three, pulled down an ever important offensive board.

During the second half the Gophers did almost everything right, everything they had to do to pull off the comeback: defensive pressure, turnovers, rebounding on both ends, a hot streak and some intensity that wasn't there to begin the game.

I wonder if the Tubby stare had anything to do with it.

Up Next: The Gophers face Indiana Friday night for the third time this season. Hopefully the Gophers take the attitude the played with in the second half into the game against the Hoosiers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Gophers' DNA Portends Tourney Fate

The Gophers are what they are: An average team with mostly average players, that doesn't play up or down to the competition but takes care of business against lightweights and falters during crunch time against legitmate competition.

While that's clearly not a description of a team that has captured the minds of the Minnesota sports world, it demonstrates drastic improvement from one season ago and gives us hope moving forward. But it doesn't give us much hope this weekend as the Big Ten Tournament kicks off in Indianapolis.

The Gophers enter the tournament as the 6th seed and will face perennial bottom-feeder Northwestern at 5 p.m. eastern time Thursday night on ESPN2. Should the Gophers beat Northwestern for the third time this season, they'll head to a Friday night match-up with Indiana, a team that is struggling despite its late season dispatching of our Gophers.

As Gophers fans we can sit back and think positively about a conference tournament run, but what is most likely to happen is the Gophers will throttle Northwestern and play tough with Indiana for three-quarters of the game before disappearing offensively down the stretch. That's not intended as a criticism of the Gophers, I've come to realize that this team's DNA maps out that sort of fate.

It's been somewhat surprising that this team has been unable to pull off just one victory over a more talented opponent. Many previous average or worse Minnesota teams have used the homecourt advantage Williams Arena provides to propel forward to an upset. Not these Gophers. Maybe it's nerves. Maybe learning how to win games they shouldn't is going to take some time. Maybe in crunch time, Minnesota's lack of big time talent takes it's toll. Whatever the justification, don't expect a miracle run from the Gophers this weekend. They are what they are, and after almost a decade of absolute futility, a year of averagness actually goes down fairly well.

** A link to the Big Ten Tournament bracket is here.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Remaining in the postseason picture

The term "March Madness" may be associated with college basketball, but the next two weeks that term could be applied to college hockey.

Sixteen teams qualify for the Division I NCAA Tournament, and with three small conferences earning a bid, it appears eight of the other 13 bids could go to the WCHA - with Minnesota grabbing the seventh bid right now.

That could change, though, if Minnesota is unable to advance to the Final Five. For the first time since 1999-2000, advancing to the Final Five will go through a road playoff series. With a split this weekend with Minnesota-Duluth, and two points earned by Mankato and St. Cloud State, the Gophers are seeded seventh for the playoffs.

The Mavericks and Huskies tied for fourth, but the Maves won the season series, 2-0.

Traveling to Mankato is a best-case scenario for Minnesota, who has a 19-2-4 record with the Mavericks. The Gophers only conference sweep this season came against the Mavericks in a home-and-home in November.

But, Mankato is playing some really good puck right now, including a split with WCHA regular season champion Colorado College two weekends ago. The Mavericks have a nice balance of offense and defense and a consistent goaltender for the first time in years.

It appears Minnesota must win at least one game next weekend to make the NCAA Tournament - two wins and they are a lock. Being swept likely will drop them out of contention since the Gophers would be below .500. A three-game series is defintely likely as the Gophers have shook off some of their offensive struggles and have put in some goals of late.

On Friday, Minnesota struck early behind two beautiful goals from Blake Wheeler and Ben Gordon off nice setup passes. Senior Evan Kauffman added a goal, while Wheeler added his second goal in a 4-1 win. In a meaningless game Saturday, Minnesota lost 3-2 to end the season series with the Dawgs 2-1-1.

Tidbits
* Freshman goaltender Alex Kangas continues to play strong a week after earning freshman of the week honors for his performance in Alaska. Kangas has started every game in the second half of the season, and really could be the difference maker next weekend.

* Jay Barriball sat out this weekend after reinjuring his ankle last weekend. It appears he will return next weekend for Mankato.

* Game time for Friday's game is at 7:37 p.m.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tactics Against Illinois Fail Again

Make it 19.

Tubby Smith has done some good things in his first year at Minnesota, but finding a way to beat Illinois obviously isn't one of them. The Illini beat the Gophers for the 19th straight time Saturday, a streak longer than any similar on in the Big Ten. It was the second time this season the Illini beat Minnesota, an astonishing feat considering Bruce Weber's fledgling squad heads into the Big Ten tournament as the 10th seed.

I'm not in the mood to get too riled up about this loss, considering it meant nothing other than bragging rights. But what surprised me is Tubby didn't take a different tact than he used to poor results in the first meeting of the year between the two teams. After that contest, I wrote:

When have the Gophers been at their best this year? When they've been harassing opposition guards, creating turnovers that lead to easy baskets. But Tubby had the Gophers play the majority of the tone-setting first half in a back-on-their-heels- 2-3 zone. The typically cold shooting Illini started hitting from the perimeter. While building a double-digit first half lead, the Illini moved the ball quickly on offense. They penetrated, kicked, rotated and found easy, open looks on our 2-3 zone. And when they missed, boxing out was a problem in the 2-3 zone.

So, the Gophers decided to take away their own strength by looking to exploit Illinois' weakness.


First, I'll just say that the defensive tactic makes some sense. Illinois is a poor shooting team, and came into Saturday dead last in the conference in three point percentage (30 percent). So, Tubby brought the same defensive scheme at the Illini --massive amounts of 2-3 zone. The Illini weren't as devastating from the outside as they were in Minneapolis in mid-February.

This time around, Illinois shot 53 percent from beyond the arc. Even worse was the large number of offensive rebounds the Illini secured because the Gophers were unable to box out in the zone. So, for the second time against Illinois, the Gophers abandoned their strength in trying to take advantage of the Illini's weakness. For the second time, it backfired.

The loss was also eerily familiar to the game earlier this week against Indiana. For three-fourths of the game, the Gophers hung around, traded leads and looked like they could win one on the road. But during the stretch drive, the Gophers went silent offensively and wound up losing 67-58. After putting in his best all around game of the year at Indiana, Dan Coleman went quiet, finishing with just four points. Lawrence McKenzie went 3-10 from the floor for 10 points.

So, anyway, that's how the Gophers lost for the 19th straight time to Illinois and fell to 8-10 in Big Ten Conference play.

Other Tidbits:

Johnson Developing: No player has drawn more praise from Gopher Nation than Damian Johnson. Much of that praise has been due to his hustle, his offensive rebounding and his ability to impact the game on the defensive end with his shot blocking and length. But in the last few weeks, Johnson has been shooting the ball with confidence from three point land. He's hit a few and missed more, but he seems to have the green light. If he can add a decent outside shot to his game.... watch out.

Starting Lineup: Tubby Smith continues to befuddle with his starting lineup choices. Today it was the four regulars (Tollackson, Coleman, McKenzie and Westbrook) and freaking Kevin Payton. Sheeeeesh. The abysmal Big Ten Network broadcasting crew suggested that Payton received the starting nod as a way to combat Illinois' height advantage. My wishful thinking theory is Tubby decided to give Payton the nod, knowing this is his last Big Ten game, seeing as he'll be transferring to Bighamton University.

Best Lineup: The lineup that was most effective for the Gophers was, IMO, Coleman, Westbrook, McKenzie, Johnson and Nolen.

Boxing Out in the Zone: Second chance opportunities have killed the Gophers this season. Many of these second chance shots come when the Gophers play a 2-3 zone. On numerous occasions Saturday the Gophers turned and went to the basket when an Illini shot went up. But that's not enough. It sounds so elementary, but you actually have to find a man, put your ass into them and box them out. The Gophers gave up 11 offensive rebounds in the first half. Cutting that in half would have meant a nice halftime lead, instead of a one point deficit.

Love Thy Basketball: During the early portions of Saturday's game, the Gophers treated the basketball like it was something not to be coveted. Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber, who are both unfortunately still playing like freshman at times, both threw lackadaisical passes that ended in transition points for the Illini. That's one thing that so impresses me about Wisconsin. Every pass is crisp. They pass the ball to the correct hand of post players. The Gophers, meanwhile, seem to just hurl passes.

UP Next: The Gophers are the sixth seed in the Big Ten tournament and will face 11 seed Northwestern Thursday. A win would give the Gophers a second crack at Purdue in the tournament quarterfinals.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Weekend Series Prep: Minnesota-Duluth at Minnesota

Series: Minnesota leads the all-time series 124-66-12 in a rivaly that dates to 1952
Drop of the puck: Friday: 7:07 p.m; Saturday: 7:07 p.m. central time
Television: Friday night, tape delay; Saturday is live on FSN North.

Announcers: Frank Mazzocco and Doug Woog
PTFG Prediction: Minnesota gets a split and gets the seventh seed, traveling to No. 4 MSU-Mankato.

Rankings:

Pairwise: Minnesota 12, UMD 13
USCHO.com: Minnesota 14, UMD 18
USA Today: Minnesota 14, UMD not ranked
Krach: Minnesota 11, UMD 13

Articles:

Star Tribune: Roman Augustoviz profiles Robbinsdale's Derek Peltier and Evan Kauffman.

Pioneer Press: Peltier was a busy man this week - Bruce Brothers talks to the captain.

Minnesota Daily: Brian Deutsch says the seniors are looking for wins No. 101 and 102.

Weekend outlook:

Gophers at a glance: Currently, Minnesota is two points ahead of Minnesota-Duluth for seventh place, and three points behind Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State University fo fifth place. The Mavericks host ninth-place Michigan Tech, while the Huskies at second-place North Dakota, who trails Colorado College by two points.

The Gophers enter this weekend’s series with Duluth on a four-game unbeaten streak (two wins, two ties) and are very much alive for an NCAA Tournament spot. A month ago after a thumping in Denver, who would have thought there was a chance? But, there is.

What needs to happen? Well, a pair of three-point weekends has put the Gophers back into contention to make the field of 16 teams that qualify. Now that they are back in contention, Minnesota needs at least a split with Duluth (we took 3 of 4 points in Duluth, so we'd win the season series) and then we'd likely need to make the Final Five.

As of today, Minnesota sits in twelfth place in the PairWise Rankings, a spot they will likely need to cling to if they hope to make it to the Big Dance.

If they don't make it, they'll likely miss the tournament for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

This weekend’s series will mark the final regular season series for six Minnesota seniors. Ben Gordon, Mike Howe, Evan Kaufmann, Derek Peltier, Tom Pohl and Brent Solei will all play their final regular season contest at Mariucci Arena on Saturday night. The seniors combined for a career record of 100-47-18 over their four seasons.

Duluth at a glance: Minnesota Duluth has lost four straight games and scored one goal over the span. The Bulldogs were shutout twice by Colorado College and then dropped a 2-0 decision and 2-1 overtime setback to North Dakota last weekend.

Duluth can finish no higher than seventh, but there is a big difference in seventh and eighth. The bottom three faces the top three of Colorado College, North Dakota and Denver.

MacGregor Sharp is the team’s leading scorer with seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points. Alex Stalock has played all but about eight minutes in goal and has a 2.26 goals against average and .918 save percentage.

Did you know? DQ Cup at Stake
Presented to the team with the highest winning percentage of games among the four Minnesota WCHA teams, the DQ Cup is coming down to the final weekend between Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth. The Gophers can win the cup with one victory, while Minnesota Duluth needs at least a win and a tie to take the trophy. The DQ Cup is in its third year. St. Cloud State won last year and Minnesota won in 2005-06.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

On Royce White

The Star Tribune reported Wednesday that DeLaSalle basketball standout Royce White has been dismissed from his high school. White is a heavily recruited junior forward who is considered by some a "must get" recruit for Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers.

Because of that status, White is somewhat of a public figure. If he scores 40, we rave. If he gets in a argument with his coach, we criticize. The dismissal from DeLaSalle is certainly eyebrow-raising. But there has been absolutely zero discussion of what transpired that led to White's dismissal. Nonetheless, many unnamed pundits at various Minnesota forums have begun taking White to task. The Gophers should ignore him, they write. White should go to college somewhere else, they suggest.

Down With Goldy has also picked up on this and he is exactly right. Here's a taste of what DWG wrote:

People. CALM DOWN. We don't even know what happened. There is no info on this, and people are ready to condemn White. This is knee-jerk speculation at best. Completely irresponsible idiocy at worst.
Sometimes it's wise to remember that college recruits are kids. White is 16, maybe 17 years old. I wonder what some of the holier than thou crowd did at that age they might not want debated on message boards. It's been rumored that he was caught cheating. Whatever. Rumors have also persisted that he didn't get along with the coaching staff. It happens and it was the reason behind Lawrence Westbrook transferring to a prep school during his senior year. If White didn't break a law, we ought to lay off a little bit.

My point is, high school kids have all sorts of problems, ranging from family issues to drugs, alcohol, tempers, social anxiety, etc. etc... And in many instances kids are able to work through them. I'll relay my experience. In high school, I was a drunk. I breezed through classes to a 3.8 average, but I spent weekends and summers boozing with my friends. Had I been a 4-star recruit, the online punditry would have lambasted me when I received an underage drinking ticket. They would have told me not to attend their college of choice. I would have been labeled as having "character issues." What they would have missed out on was a college student who matured, who grew tired of alcohol and binge drinking and who went on to get a job at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer out of college. Not bad for character issues!

Anyway.....let's take it a little easier on Royce. .... at least until we know more. And for those saying Minnesota should stop recruiting Royce, I'll ask this: Do you trust Tubby Smith? I do. And I believe that if there is any major concern, Tubby will shy away. And I also believe one reason we hired Tubby is that he is an all aroud good man. He's been considered a father figure by former players. He's obviously helped Al Nolen, who many thought wouldn't qualify academically. Nolen was honored last week for his academic excellence.

White Bio: Royce is a 6'7, 210 pound junior forward who has been heavily recruited. Michigan State, Minnesota, USC, Arkansas, Purdue and many others have offered scholarships. Many more have taken a strong look at him. According to Rivals, Royce is the #9 small forward in the 2009 recruiting class.

Also: Twin Cities Boys Hoops blog speculates that Royce and Rodney Williams, another imporatant Minnesota recruit, could end up playing prep school ball together next season.

Gophers Disappear Down The Stretch Against Indiana

The script seemed oddly familiar to those that have played out for the Gophers all season. They played stretches of great basketball, and stretches of mistake-filled basketball. And the Gophers had a chance during the last 5-10 minutes to earn a statement victory, but fell short. Unlike some other close losses, at Indiana Wednesday night the Gophers vanished for the stretch run of the game.

Barring an amazing run in the Big Ten tournament, the loss to Indiana effectively ends any longshot dreams of earning an NCAA Tournament bid.

In Assembly Hall, the Gophers were a two-man show offensively. Lawrence McKenzie continued his hot-shooting ways, scoring 22 points on 6-11 shooting. Dan Coleman, who might have played his best all around game of the season shot with confidence from the outside in scoring 14 points. But Coleman impressed most with his hustle, grabbing eight rebounds and proving to be a factor in the shot blocking department.

But aside from those two seniors, the Gophers had nothing to offer. Blake Hoffarber was ineffective in 12 minutes and went scoreless. Spencer Tollackson was also ineffective in just 11 minutes (there was no foul trouble) and went scoreless. Damian Johnson and Jon Williams were OK off the bench, but Coleman and McKenzie alone couldn't carry the Gophers.

For the Hoosiers, Eric Gordon was mighty impressive. His shot wasn't falling, but he continued to find a way to get himself to the foul line and he did well to penetrate Minnesota's zone and kick to open shooters once the defense collapsed. Gordon scored 20 points, including 12-14 from the line. Impressive.

Gordon's ability to create is the exact piece the Gophers' offense lacks. McKenzie is a streaky shooter who can get red hot. But if McKenzie's shot isn't falling, he can't create for others the way Gordon does.

The Hoosiers won 69-55, but for three-quarters of the game the Gophers were trading blows with the Indiana. But the Gophers lacked the consistency to keep up. Same story, different game.

Other observations:

JAS: The junior walk on turned scholarship player started and played 10 completely awful minutes. He didn't score. He grabbed one rebound. He turned the ball over twice. JAS is a defensive liability and against teams with even a semblance of perimeter athleticism he is completely ineffective on offense. Can anyone make an argument for why he's playing (and starting!!).

Free Throws: Three Gophers ventured to the free throw line Wednesday night. McKenzie was 6-11, Lawrence Westbrook was 4-4 and Jon Williams was 0-2 with an air ball mixed in. I point this out only because it still amazes me at how little our big men get to the foul line. Coleman had a nice game, but he's never been able to be a physical, foul-drawing force on the interior.

Up and Under: I absolutely loved to see Jon Williams execute an old school up and under early in the first half. DJ White (I think it was) joined the IU faithful in calling for travelling. It wasn't. It was Kevin McHale-esque. Beautiful.

Up Next: The Gophers wrap up the regular season with a trip to face the Illini this weekend. A win would bring the Gophers back to .500 for the conference season, and that would be one hell of an improvement over last season. A win would also give the Gophers a chance to claim that 5th seed in the conference tournament.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gophers Have Second Chance To Topple Hoosiers

It's never a good time to face DJ White and Eric Gordon in Assembly Hall. The combo has demonstrated they can lead Indiana to a run deep into March. But, when the Gophers visit the Hoosiers Wednesday night, the matchup might actually be coming at the right time.

The Gophers should be riding high after putting together 20 really strong minutes in the second half against Ohio State. Lawrence McKenzie, albeit it late in the season, has finally started to play on the offensive end with a dogged determination. Meanwhile, the Indiana Hoosiers are coming off an embarrassing destruction at the hands of Michigan State. A loss like that for the Hoosiers was to be expected, given that the team has been through on hell of a gauntlet having lost their head man during the stretch run of what could have been, and still could be, a special season.

While Indiana's loss to Michigan State was shocking, what could be worse for the Hoosiers is a subsequent letdown. A regular season Big Ten title will likely wind up in Purdue or Wisconsin, a fact that must leave the Hoosiers wondering what they are playing for (never mind who they are playing for).

So, I'm saying there's a chance ... for the Gophers to win.

When Indiana came to Williams Arena earlier this season, the Gophers did everything they had to do to beat the Hoosiers. They shut down Eric Gordon. They caused turnovers and scored in transition. The only ingredient that was missing was free throw shooting, where the Gophers, namely Spencer Tollackson, shot horrifically from the stripe. Had the free throw line actually been charitable, the Gophers would have beaten the Hoosiers and that would have given them a legitmate leg to stand on as Selection Sunday approaches.

To win at Indiana, the Gophers need to do many of the same thigns that were effective during the first meeting. Frustrating Gordon is essential, and the best way to do that is have a longer, taller defender effect his outside jump shot--a good task for Damian Johnson. Additionally, the Gophers need to hold down the glass the way they did against Othello Hunter, Kosta Koufos and the Ohio State Buckeyes. The task is tougher agaisnt an Indiana team that has the best big man in the country.

Most importantly, in my opinion, the Gophers need to play consistent basketball. They need to move the ball consistently on offense and get good shots. When the Gophers have had ugly stretches this year, that has been caused in part by a lack of offensive continuity. Early on, the Gophers need to get Dan Coleman and easy look or two. Same goes for Lawrence McKenzie. If the Gophers can get both of those seniors going, that will open up lanes for Lawrence Westbrook and pull perimeter defenders off of Blake Hoffarber.

It will be an up hill battle, and while the Hoosiers could be down on themselves, I expect a raucous IU crowd to do their best to lift their team. But I think the Gophers pull a shocker and send the Dan Dakich led Hoosiers tumbling heading into tourney time. Pick: Minnesota 71, IU 69.

Keeping Tabs: Devoe Dominating

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.

Canadian super prep Devoe Joseph (pictured) put up a team-high 27 points Monday night for his Pickering High Trojans, leading them to a 94-48 throttling of their opponent in the first round of the provincial boys high school playoffs.

Prior to the first tip, the Toronto Sun took a look at what to expect in the Ontario high school tournament. Our boy Devoe was prominently featured. Here's a snippet.

Pickering is led by phenom senior Devoe Joseph, a combo guard who received attention from major U.S. Division 1 schools. He saw visits by coaches from Virginia Tech, Texas, Vanderbilt, Illinois, St. John's, Kansas and USC before accepting a full scholarship to play for the University of Minnesota this fall.

While Pickering doesn't keep official stats for its games, Gordensky estimates Joseph puts up 25 points, six or seven assists and a couple of steals per contest. He lit up d'Youville for a season-high 42 points on Dec. 14.

"He is incredibly athletic and he has unlimited (shooting) range," said Gordensky of the 6-foot-3 Joseph. "He also runs the point for us sometimes because he is such a smart player."

The Gophers are going to need someone next season to pick up some of the scoring slack. With Dan Coleman, Spencer Tollackson and Lawrence McKenzie moving on, Joseph will be a key newcomer when it comes to filling the basket. If the Gophers sign another point guard, I expect Devoe to play a lot of shooting guard. If not, expect Al Nolen and Devoe to share time at the point similar to how McKenzie and Nolen do now.

Devron Bostick: Quite the accomplishment for this young man. For the second consecutive season, Bostsick has been named the Great Rivers Athletic Conference and Region 24 tournament player of the year. This Belleville News Democrat article suggests that Bostick persevered this season despite some up and down play. Here's a snippet:

Bostick is averaging 18 points for a Blue Storm team that is 26-4 and seeded first in the Region 24 Tournament.

"There was a time a few weeks ago when I didn't think he was going to do anything because Devron wasn't playing well and he was having a few problems. We even benched him for a half in two of our games," Blue Storm coach Jay Harrington said. "I'm really proud that he was able to get through that tough time and finish as strong as he has."

Bostick, who will attend the University of Minnesota next fall, enjoyed his stellar sophomore season despite being heavily guarded.

"It's been a different season because every game he's been a marked man. He's been the guy teams have tried to stop," Harrington said of Bostick. "He's been beaten on, pushed and shoved all year and even though its been difficult for him, I think he's become more comfortable with the fact that he's been a decoy.

"Sometimes when you are the one people are trying to stop, you have to learn to let your teammates take charge. Devron has done that."

It sounds like a year of maturation for Bostick. It should bode well for him when he arrives in Minnesota that he's learned how to deal with ups and downs and tough, physical play. If he's a potential NBA player as has been reported, he'll get significant attention from superior defenders once he arrives in the Big Ten.

Ralph Sampson III: The Duluth, GA product had 18 points, but his Northview team couldn't upend the heavily favored team from Norcross, the two time state champions, in a state quarterfinal last weekend. According tot he Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sampson came into the game averaging seven blocks per contest but tallied just one in the season-ending loss.

Verdell Jones: According to a thread on an Illini message board, Tubby Smith made the trip to Illinois recently to (presumably) catch point guard Verdell Jones in action. At this point, Jones is not part of the five-player class that will suit up next season, but Tubby is still looking at a handful of players (a couple point guards and a big man) for the incoming class. The Gophers seem to be in the driver's seat for Jones' services. But he also has basketball heavyweights Kentucky and Tennessee after him. Jones is a 3-star, 6'4" point guard who is said to have good ball handling skills, vision, and a good set shot from the outside. Jones' value has went up in part because there is a dearth of point guard talent left unsigned at this point. For a couple reasons--Minnesota's own point guard issues and just to steal a recruit from Kentucky is fun--it'd be great to get Jones to sign on.