Not many teams could survive losing two point guards capable of starting in the Big Ten in a matter of weeks. But Tubby Smith's Gophers are surviving and thriving with Devoe Joseph opting to wear street clothes in Oregon and Al Nolen on the bench with a broken foot. How? Dominating the paint. On Wednesday night against Northwestern, the Gophers pounded the ball in the paint at every possible opportunity as Colton Iverson, Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe helped the Gophers to a relatively easy win against the Wildcats.
Mbakwe had 18 and 14. Iverson had 15 and 6 and Sampson added 14 to lead Minnesota's pound-the-ball-inside attack. And any questions about Blake Hoffarber scoring while in the point guard role were answered, as the senior tossed in 20 points. The Gophers dominated for all about one first half 6 minute span and moved to 5-3 in the Big Ten with an 81-70 win.
Coach Smith clearly had a plan. If the basketball Gods were going to take away his point guards, then Coach Smith was going to live and die with what has been this team's strength all along -- its size. Tubby started all three bigs. That meant the Gophers were going to have to adjust defensively, with two relatively slow-footed centers on the floor at the same time in Iverson and Sampson. So the Gophers played the 2-3 zone that they've played on occasion very well this season. Mbakwe's ability to cover significant territory on the low block, and Minnesota's length generally has made the zone fairly effective. For the better part of the game, Northwestern was forced to take contested outside threes.
Offensively, no matter if Bill Carmody was playing zone or an extended 1-3-1, the Gophers were determined to get the ball inside. The interior passing from the bigs was something to behold. All three bigs knew what they wanted to do with the basketball and the big-to-big passing was simply great.
Northwestern, who has been oh-so-close to winning a resume-building Big Ten game or two, twice taking Michigan State to the brink of an upset, never threatened in the second half. Michael Thompson led the Wildcats with 18 points, but he was just 4-13 from three. John Shurna, who slammed his chin into the base of the basket in the first half, never could really shake free from the 2-3 zone. He added 16 and 8.
Minnesota's focus on scoring in the paint also translated to scoring from the free throw line. The GOphers shot an amazing 46 free throws. Granted, they were just 31-46, but getting to the free throw line that often is an accomplishment by itself. With the focus on dumping the ball down to the block, the Gophers didn't settle for many outside shots. The Gophers were just 2-11 from three. Hoffarber was 2-5.
Tubby's bench also shortened. While the Michigan game saw Maverick Ahanmisi and Chip Armelin play significant minutes in Nolen's absence, against Northwestern it was Austin Hollins with the impactful minutes off the bench. With Hoffarber manning most of the minutes at point guard, Ahanmisi played sparingly. Hollins came in and found a role, however, providing solid defense with his length. He added 10 points in a variety of ways. This might have been Hollins' best game as a Gopher.
I'll have more thoughts on this game in the morning, but for now let's enjoy this one. This team continues to persevere despite continued setbacks. Up next is JaJuan Johnson and Matt Painter on CBS this Saturday in West Lafayette.