This Minnesota Golden Gophers team wanted respect. Now they have it.
Over the last three days, the Gophers whipped Penn State, the team that the pundits said "no one wanted to play." Then the Gophers beat Big Ten co-champion Michigan State behind some clutch performances in overtime. And Saturday afternoon, the Gophers thoroughly destroyed the sixth ranked, and also Big Ten co-champion, Purdue Boilermakers. It will most likely go down as Minnesota's most lopsided victory ever over a top ten team. The Gophers were better in every facet of the game.
And if you're just now paying attention, the Gophers were a determined, maybe mad, team heading into the Big Ten Tournament. The team voiced semi-outrage over not having one player voted to any of the All Big Ten teams. Not even Damian Johnson's consistently outstanding defensive play earned him the nod for the All Defensive Team. That was an outrage, and the Gophers decided they wanted respect. They printed new white t-shirts with a Minnesota logo with the word 'respect' inscribed in simple black letters.
After the last three games, the symbolic request for respect is no longer needed. The Gophers have earned the respect they wanted and will face Ohio State Sunday afternoon for a chance to win the Big Ten Tournament Championship.
How did they demolish Purdue? The Gophers forced Purdue into tough shots all game, but during a long first half stretch, the Gophers cut off all driving lanes, frustrated E'Twuan Moore, and pushed around JaJuan Johnson. Nothing came easy for Purdue. They mustered just 11 points at halftime. Some of that was poor shooting, but it also had a lot to do with Minnesota's team defense and domination of the glass.
Offensively, the Gophers were extremely crisp, especially in the first half. The high-low between Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson caused Matt Painter's team fits. If they didn't double-down on Iverson, he muscled his way in for a basket. If they sank defensively off of Sampson or Iverson at the high post, one of our bigs simply turned and hit the jumper. Sampson finished with 13. Iverson had 11.
Minnesota's size advantage allowed the Gophers to completely trounce Purdue on the glass, winning the wars on the boards 50-26. Paul Carter led the team with 10 rebounds.Minnesota's guards did well to get the team into its offensive sets and didn't force outside shots. Defensively, the guards were as good as they've been all season at cutting off driving lanes.
As of this writing, ESPN"s Joe Lunardi has the Gophers as one of the last three teams in to the NCAA Tournament, ahead of Illinois, who lost in double overtime to Ohio State earlier. That means if the Gophers make this tournament it will be because they earned a ticket after playing very well down the stretch this season. If you take out the loss at Michigan, the Gophers have put together one heck of a stretch since the middle of February. The Gophers beat nationally ranked Wisconsin by 16 on February 18th and then trounced Indiana two days later. They came back on February 24th and lost a heartbreaker to Purdue by one. The team then traveled to Illinois and built a huge lead against the Illini and hung on to win on the road. Then, after the let down in Ann Arbor, the Gophers have won by 30 against Iowa, 21 against Penn State, in overtime against #11 Michigan State and by 27 against #6 Purdue.
Yeah, that's what they call playing well heading into the NCAA Tournament.
And that should earn any team the respect it wants.
Some other thoughts from today.
** Clark Kellogg is wonderful, usually. And while I understand Kellog and Jim Nantz lost interest in Saturday's game, it doesn't excuse the duo repeatedly getting some basic facts wrong. To the CBS crew covering Sunday's Big Ten Championship, please note that when Minnesota beat Ohio State at Williams Arena this year, Evan Turner did indeed play. However, Minnesota had Al Nolen, now suspended for academics, frustrating Turner that entire afternoon. Just looking for accuracy, guys!
** Every Minnesota player got into the act against Purdue. Devron Bostick again showed the type of player he can be, with a high offensive IQ. Justin Cobbs played some very good minutes at the point, giving Devoe Joseph a needed break.
** Paul Carter not only was great on the glass, but he shot confidently going 4-4 for 8 points.
** Bryant Allen and Blake Hoffarber both made one three! Purdue did a good job of smothering Hoffarber, but that also allowed Minnesota more room to breathe in the paint. In other words, Hoffarber helped Minnesota without scoring.
** Finally, Coach Tubby Smith deserves some serious praise for keeping this team together during a clearly trying season. There's no reason to rehash the off-the-court headaches this team has faced, or the on-the-court adversity, but somehow, someway, after being written off by everyone, the Gophers are on the verge of winning their first ever Big Ten Championship. And even if that doesn't happen Sunday, this team has earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Many coaches might have let this season slip into oblivion, making note of some obvious excuses along the way. That hasn't happened with this team, and Coach Smith deserves some credit.