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.

7 comments:

The Sports Guy said...

Great stuff this week, PJS. I think I'll wait on a hockey story until we get swept tonight.

The funny thing was I'm in Mankato last night and word starts to spread about the "shot" and I'm more excited about the basketball game than a scoreless 2OT hockey game (I'm a hockey rube).

Made the loss sting a little less. For those who haven't read Pat Forde's piece - amazing stuff.

PJS said...

Yes, Pat Forde's piece was the best of the bunch, by far. Very good writing. I didn't link to Myron, but he wasn't half bad. Compared to the PiPress, he at least got his facts right.

Friend Of Tubby said...

Clipped from Forde:

The situation was fairly desperate for Minnesota most of the night, despite racing out to a 24-8 lead. Center Spencer Tollackson, the Gophers' third-leading scorer, was out after spraining his ankle against Northwestern. Then leading scorer Dan Coleman picked up two quick fouls to start the game -- and added two more early in the second half. He played just 13 minutes and scored only six points.

So Smith was cobbling together lineups against a team that already had beaten the Gophers twice. If anyone doubted Tubby's in-game coaching ability before Friday night, they don't anymore. At one point he had Busch, a 6-foot-4 guard/forward, checking 6-8, 300-plus-pound monstrosity DeAndre Thomas -- and lived to tell about it.

PJS said...

The play in the second half when Busch was fronting Thomas and timed his jump just right to deflect a entry lob was one of a great number of shear hustle plays last night. Busch certainly lacks in big time talent, but he was a gamer last night.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy for you guys but that was one of the most devastating losses I've ever seen as an IU fan.

If I can stomach watching I'm going to root for you guys today. And I was really impressed with the Johnson kid. I never remembered him scoring in the post the way he did last night. Posting up DJ on a couple of occasions, he was impressive.

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