We can blame the loss on Al Nolen's injury if it makes us feel better, but the way Minnesota played in the second half Monday night, they didn't deserve a win, with or without their starting point guard.
The Gophers blew a 10 point halftime lead against a Virginia team that had lost to Stanford by 20, Washington by 43 and Wichita State by 12. Minnesota played sparingly on defense--especially while giving up 58 second half points. The Gophers failed to exert its force on the interior and ran a half-court offense that looked at times like a pick-up game offense you might see at the local gym. The result was an 87-79 loss that didn't feel that close.
Did the Gophers miss Nolen? Of course. He's a lock down perimeter defender. And through Minnesota's surprisingly strong first six games, Nolen ran Minnesota's offense efficiently. The Gophers could have used Nolen against Virginia, but let's not pretend Nolen himself would have fixed Minnesota's leaky perimeter defense. The Cavaliers shot a red-hot 10-13 (76 percent) from three and 47 percent from the field for the game. Despite Minnesota's front-court depth, Virginia out-rebounded the Gophers 32-30.
Give credit to Virginia for pouncing. Mustapha Farrakhan was 4-5 from three and had 23 points. Joe Harris was 4-6 from three for 24 points. An Mike Scott's athleticism and savvy on the low block was too much for Minnesota's big men Colton Iverson, Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe.
As Virginia slowly took away Minnesota's half-time lead, the Gophers clearly didn't know what to do. What was a cohesive offensive attack through 6.5 games all of a sudden turned into a panic-stricken offense. With Nolen out, the Gophers turned to Devoe Joseph at the point for the majority of the second half. I don't want to be too hard on Joseph in his first game back from a six game suspension, but the offense really didn't exist for about 15 minutes as he led a disjointed Minnesota attack. Joseph forced shots and the Gophers neglected their interior big men for long stretches. Sampson, for example, took two shots all night.
If I have a complaint for Tubby Smith on this night, it's that he stuck with Joseph for far too long in the second half. During freshman Maverick Ahanmisi's minutes, the Gophers were better on both ends of the floor. On the other hand though, as Minnesota's lead slipped away, Joseph is one of few Gophers who is capable of scoring in bunches, so I understand why Tubby kept him on the floor, even though it didn't work out.
At the end of the day, this loss isn't terribly damaging to Minnesota, but it does suck quite a bit of air out of that #13 national ranking. More thoughts after the jump.
Other observations from Minnesota's first loss:
- Ralph Sampson III didn't really show up. Again. He was in occasional foul trouble, but did little to assert himself during his 21 minutes. He finihsed with 2 points, 4 rebounds and 1 block.
- Colton Iverson wasn't much better. 5 and 4 in 24 minutes.
- Like many of us, Tubby Smith might have thought that Virginia just couldn't keep up the blistering pace from the perimeter. At half-time, I certainly felt that way. But as the second half continued, it was clear that Minnesota just wasn't quick enough on the perimeter. For a short time, Tubby went to a 2-3 zone, which was probably just thrown out to give UVA something new to look at. But Minnesota never tried to change up in other ways until the game was all but decided. It would have been interesting to see what a small-ball lineup looked like. It would have been interesting to see Blake Hoffarber run the point, as he did effectively in Puerto Rico.
- Speaking of Hoffarber, he led the Gophers with 19 points. Mbakwe added 18 and was Minnesota's only real interior presence.
- When there have been Nolen v. Joseph debates, I have tended to side with Joseph mostly because Nolen's offense has been excruciating at times. And until this year, it wasn't just Nolen's personal offense, it was that he struggled running an offense. But tonight more than ever before it was quite a difference watching Joseph play defense on the perimeter as compared to Nolen. If you have the game on DVR, go watch Joseph's defensive stance. He was often leaning back, playing defense almost defensively. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but it's quite the contrast after watching Nolen for six games.
- Enough for now. I'm going to have a cocktail and forget about my fantasy of a top 10 Minnesota team heading into Madison to begin the Big Ten season.