The Minnesota Golden Gophers Tuesday night won a must win game against Indiana at Williams Arena. But save for a handful of minutes in the second half, it was probably the ugliest win of the year.
An inexperienced and somewhat depleted Hossiers team tried to do everything possible to turn this game into a blowout. The Hoosiers coughed up a whopping 26 turnovers. But the Gophers had an answer for most of those, committing 19 careless turnovers themselves. Despite turning the ball over 26 times, the Hoosiers kept clawing and scratching. Tom Crean deserves considerable praise for the way his team is handling a very difficult season.
For most of the first half--most of the game really--the Gophers seemed listless. Even Tubby Smith looked the part of a dejected and downtrodden coach on the sidelines. His head was often in his hands, his facial expressions dour. I'm not sure if Smith was the chicken or the egg, but his team played the way the coach looked. Listless is probably kind.
It wasn't all bad. Paul Carter was the savior, scoring a career-high 22 points in 22 minutes, shooting 7 for 13 from the field. He was aggressive enough to get to the foul line, where he shot 7 for 8. He also contributed 6 rebounds, a block, two steals and three turnovers. Ralph Sampson III had his second consecutive solid game against the Hoosiers. He finished with 8 points including 4 for 5 from the line and a team-high 7 rebounds.
The team's sloppy and inconsistent play prompted Tubby Smith to tinker with his lineups more than usual. For stretches we saw Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen on the floor together. The result was Lawrence Westbrook played just 19 minutes. Both Nolen and Joseph have their strengths and weaknesses. Joseph gives the team another offensive threat who can, in some respects, create his own shot. In my opinion, the Gophers also have a faster tempo when Joseph is running the team. Nolen, on the other hand, his little offensive game when he's not penetrating and getting to the rack. But his defense is rock solid. He helped the Gophers pull away in the second half, and finished with 5 assists and 4 steals. Joseph had a meaningful 9 points.
Sticking with point guards, the best one on the floor Tuesday night was Indiana freshman Verdell Jones III. Jones, who toyed with becoming a Gopher, led the Hoosiers with 18 points and 7 assists. He also got himself to the free throw line 8 times. In his 36 minutes, Jones also turned the ball over 5 times, so he obviously needs to mature. But he's going to be a pretty good Big Ten point guard.
The Gophers finally showed a spark about midway through the second half when Indiana climbed back to take a one point lead. All of a sudden the Gophers had energy. All of a sudden the Gophers decided to apply full court pressure. Indiana couldn't the pressure. So, I ask, why don't the Gophers press more? During the undefeated non-conferene slate the Gophers pressed almost everyone. So, why not press a team like Indiana?
On the offensive end most of the night, the Gophers were their typical stagnant selves. Spacing was poor. Entry passes into the post were made at highly questionable angles and sometimes just in plain old sloppy fashion. A team that a short time ago shot the lights out from three against Penn State, shot just 23 percent from that distance against Indiana.
The 62-54 win moves the Gophers to 7-5 in conference play just one game in the loss column behind the second place Illinois. But life isn't going to be easy for the Gophers. Three of the next four games are on the road. The Gophers travel to Penn State this weekend before heading to Ann Arbor next week. Let's hope the team gets a second wind before travelling to Happy Valley, because the team that showed up Tuesday night, for the most part, looked like an average NIT team and nothing resembling a team vying for an NCAA bid.