This is quickly becoming a lost season for the Gophers men's basketball team. A team that came into the season nationally ranked and a darkhorse candidate to win the Big Ten, Tubby Smith's third iteration of Gophers continues to flounder.
After blowing a 13 point lead against a very beatable Michigan State team, the Gophers have now lost three straight for the second time this season. What makes this loss sting more than the others is that the Gophers seemed to have control for the first 33 minutes of the game. With Devoe Joseph taking over point guard duties from the academically ineligible Al Nolen, the Gophers looked to be a team that was beginning to find ways to execute on offense. They were dominating the Spartans in the paint offensively and holding their own on the glass. For the first 30-plus minutes the Gophers were moving, cutting and slashing without the ball. Ralph Sampson III was getting the ball inside and usually making good decisions.
And then, maybe in part because the Gophers wanted to draw down the clock, the team stopped executing on offense. All of a sudden, Minnesota's offense was relegated to one-on-one basketball with either Lawrence Westbrook or Joseph trying to create off the dribble.
Meanwhile, the Spartans were flying around on offense the last few possessions. They executed and stole a game at Williams Arena they had no business winning.
Joseph's debut as the starting point guard was largely successful, though Patrick Reusse questions his defense in this article. While it's true Joseph isn't as dominant as Nolen is defensively, Joseph isn't a liability on defense either and the offense for most of the game was much more efficient then the offense has been with Nolen in charge. Joseph finished with 16 points and 7 assists.
The collapse down the stretch can also be attributed to Tubby Smith's apparent change of philosophy in his allocation of minutes. For pretty much his entire tenure in Minnesota, Tubby has played 10 players significant minutes every game. For some reason, that changed Saturday. Westbrook, Joseph and Blake Hoffarber all played 36 minutes. Sampson played 33. Damian Johnson played 26 minutes and Paul Carter played 14. Aside from Carter, no bench played was given significant minutes. Justin Cobbs, Rodney Williams and Devron Bostick all played 4 minutes. Colton Iverson had 7 minutes. It's a tough thing--and a highly questionable decision--for Tubby to ask the starters to all of a sudden play pretty much a full game when throughout his entire tenure in Minnesota that hasn't been the case. I think Joseph specifically looked gassed the last few minutes, in part because Tubby for once decided not to use his bench.
It's tempting to look at the bright side here and note that the Gophers were blown out three times by Michigan State last year and just one year later the Gophers could have, maybe should have, won both contests this year. But we should also remember that this Spartans team isn't the Final Four team it was a year ago. The Spartans lack any back-to-the-basket game and are highly dependent offensively on run-outs and streaky perimeter shooting. Kalin Lucas might be the best player on the court when these teams have played this year, but the Gophers are a deeper team capable of beating their opponents in more ways. Yet in winnable games against Michigan State, Indiana, Texas A&M, Miami and Portland, this team has somehow found a way to lose.
The expectations coming into this year make these losses all that much more painful. This could have been a Sweet 16 team. They could have competed for a Big Ten title. But thanks to the legal problems facing Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White, we've never seen the team's only two power forwards in uniform. Because of some violation, senior Devron Bostick has never been involved with this team in any meaningful way. And now we have a shut-down defender out for academic reasons.
Oh, what could have been ....