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.


Friend Of Tubby said...

(Clipped from Sid in Minny S-T)

Tubby Smith has put a competitive team on the floor in his first year with the Gophers, but he is not happy that so many close games didn't go their way.

Looking back on the Gophers men's basketball team's just-completed regular season, first-year coach Tubby Smith was not happy with the results, even though the team has won 18 games -- double what it won a year ago.

Smith said two of the weaknesses the team had this year were a lack of rebounding and poor post defense. And he hopes those two weaknesses can be corrected with next year's recruiting class, regarded as a pretty good one that will give the Gophers some athleticism along the front line. Ralph Sampson III should help provide a shot-blocking presence the team lacked this season. This year's Gophers were really thin up front, in part because of the departures of 6-9 Bryce Webster after last season and 6-6 Brandon Smith before this season.

"So that bulk, and really, that frontcourt strength would have given us a little more rebounding power, a little more post defense," Tubby Smith said. "But the guys we have coming back will help us."

Even so, Smith looks back to several games this season where the Gophers led late in the game but couldn't hang on. He said the team had a chance to win 25 games.

He pointed to Saturday's 67-58 loss at Illinois as an example. "It's a three-point game [with less than four minutes remaining], they go back up by three, we change to zone defense," Smith recalled. "Trent Meacham, who didn't hit a three in the game before against Michigan State, we're doing a good job on him, so let's go zone. Everybody now follows, he's on the wing there, so make sure you cover him. First play down, we don't come out and contest, he makes the three and now it's a six-point game. ... Now you have to change your game plan, you get a little more anxious, you set a play, you don't capitalize on it, you don't convert.

"The same thing happened at Indiana [on Wednesday, a 69-55 loss]. ... We're up 47-46 [with 8:26 to play] and then they tie it up, we have a chance to take the lead again, but we miss [a free throw], now they come down and score, hit a three. And it's been that way here [at home] against Indiana, the same thing happened."

If the Gophers can beat Northwestern for the third time this season Thursday at the Big Ten tournament, they will get another shot at Indiana on Friday night in Indianapolis. Maybe then they will get the late-game play they have missed in close games this season.

"We're leading, we're taking the lead late in the game and just needing offense, needing a guard that can kind of run the show," Smith said. "Al Nolen does a good job there and he's going to be excellent at it.

"Blake Hoffarber and Devoe Joseph coming will be on hand, but we may sign another guard. That may be the thing we need to do."

Possible candidates for that spot include Champaign (Ill.) Central guard Verdell Jones, whom Smith watched play Friday night, and Jorge Gutierrez, a prep school standout in Nevada.

(My opinion)

Gophers were possible 20 W team but not 25 W.

PJS said...

That's some honest talk from coach, and he's right about the post defense and that it was impacted by the departures of Smith and Webster.

But one reason I think the Gophers struggled in the 2-3 zone against Illinois is because they simply aren't used to playing it for large stretches of time. Like many teams, the Gophers play zone on inbounds plays. That's one thing, but to do run it as a game plan requires a team that knows how to play that defense effectively.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Double the W (18 from 9) and about half the L (12 not 22) from last year.

But still disappointing compared to What Might Have Been. 20 W or more.

Next year, Gophers will have more talent but less experience.

PJS said...

Next year's class will be the first time we'll see Tubby with his chosen players. It would seem he's stepped up to the plate in the recruiting department (4-stars Joseph and Sampson), somewhat coveted big man (Iverson) and two highly regarded JUCOs in Bostick and Carter. If the majority of these players live up to expectations, I'll quickly forget about the infamous recruiting of Chris Lofton.

The Sports Guy said...

Tubby had an insightful interview with PA and Dubay yesterday on KFAN. It's podcastable.

Also, check out the Fish Wrap Factory East Side (Pioneer Press), Marcus Fuller had a story on Joseph yesterday.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Lofton, Schmofton.

UK signed Rondo (NBA), Crawford, and Bradley in 2004.

Lofton was Class of 2004.

Each higher rated than Lofton.

They won 6 of 9 games versus Lofton.

Crawford and Bradley BETTER THAN LOFTON as seniors.

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