Jordan Crawford was easily the best player on the floor, and Xavier's guards were too much on offense Friday afternoon as the Musketeers from the Atlantic 10 played like the favored team in a 65-54 victory over the Gophers.
Crawford, the transfer from Indiana University, finished with a game high 28 points. He was the most athletic player on the court. He drove to the basket with aggression and confidence and shot well from the outside to finish 11-21 on the day. Crawford was assisted by another outsanding guard in Terrell Holloway and big men Jason Love, Kenny Frease and Jamel McLean. That combination of athletic and talented guards along with active and effective big men was too much for this MInnesota team to overcome.
Minnesota was never really a factor in this game offensively. During a first half when the Gophers were very much in the game, it was the team's defense that kept them alive moreso than any offensive efficiency. Minnesota's defense couldn't keep up the pace in the second half, after playing the first 20 minutes to a 26 all tie. While Xavier solved Minnesota's defense in the second half, the Gophers couldn't find any rhythm offensively. The Gophers finished the game having shot 30 percent from the floor and just 26 percent from three. This Gophers team was never going to win many games shooting that way.
Westbrook, who has inexplicably taken more criticism from Minnesota fans than any Gopher in recent memory, might have been the only player on the floor to play with the type of confidence on the offensive end of the floor needed to win this game. He scored 19 of the team's 54 points and didn't turn the ball over. Westbrook was never a perfect player, but the Gophers needed another player just like him on Friday, someone who could create his own shot and was happy taking it. No other Minnesota player can take over a game on offense like he can.
Johnson played the type of game that encapsulates his career. He was very good on the defensive end. He contributed to the team's first half string of blocked shots. He had 7 points (second highest on the team), 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 4 assists and 1 steal. It was a typical Johnson line filled with solid production. But Johnson also went 0-3 from three point land, wide open attempts, that could have been crucial to Minnesota's comeback.
Many thought Minnesota's size in the post could be an advantage that would lead the Gophers to a first round upset. It wasn't to be. Ralph Sampson III was thoroughly overpowered on the interior. Colton Iverson was better, but Minnesota never established the back-to-the-basket or high-low offense. Credit to Xavier's big men, who could no doubt excel in today's Big Ten, for winning the paint. Xavier out-rebounded Minnesota 50-41. McLean had 14 rebounds.
One Minneapolis-based columnist stated earlier in the week that Minnesota was the better team heading into the first-round game against Milwaukee. More on him in the days to come, but suffice to say he was wrong. Minnesota isn't far behind Xavier, but on this day it was clear that the Musketeers were the better team with the superior talent.
The Gophers deserve considerable credit for even making it this far in what was perhaps the most turbulent year since the end of the Clem Haskins era. They deserve credit for over-achieving in the Big Ten Tournament. Because of all of that, in my opinion, this year was a success for the Gophers. But the expectations will change next year in Tubby Smith's fourth year at the helm. It won't be OK for much longer to have this team be considered a fringe bubble team or exit quietly in the first round. Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson helped Coach Smith make this team relevant again. But it's time they take one more step.