The Gophers left Williams Arena Thursday night having lost its fourth straight, second straight at home, and fell to 5-7 in conference play. At this point, there should be no talk of the bubble or NCAA berths. This is an NIT team right now. Nothing more.
If you've watched the last four games, you've seen that the Gophers have a beast in the paint named Trevor Mbakwe. They have a sharp-shooter named Blake Hoffarber playing point guard. After that? Ralph Sampson III has his moments in the paint. But no one has stepped up to fill the void left by injuries to Al Nolen and Maurice Walker or the transfer of Al Nolen.
Maverick Ahanmisi hasn't stepped up at the point guard spot. His defense is atrocious.
Rodney Williams, the would-be NBA talent, looks to be regressing. After flashes of potential, Rodney is struggling with simple decision-making. His passing is scary bad sometimes. And aside from an occasional defensive play, he's not helping Minnesota at all.
Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin have both had their moments. But during a crucial stretch, Hollins, who is now starting as a freshman, came free at the elbow for a wide open jumper. It was an uncontested shot that didn't even draw iron. The Gophers were down 4 at the time with 3 minutes left. I don't think you can win big time college basketball games when your starting point guard can't hit the rim from the elbow.
Point is, the talent that's on the floor for Minnesota isn't Top 25 talent. It's not NCAA Tournament talent. And that's why they've lost four straight. Blame injuries. Blame recruiting. It doesn't change the fact that this Gophers team, sans any legitimate guard play other than Hoffarber, is closer to the NIT than the NCAA.
During Illinois' 71-62 win, Mbakwe was great. He had 17 and 16. He had 10 and 10 at half time. And I have no clue why the Gophers didn't try to include him more in the second half. Sampson added 16 and 11. He was frustrating at times with his soft interior play, but this one isn't on Sampson. He played fairly well.
Where did Minnesota lose a winnable game? First, the Gophers had 2 bench points. Second, they committed 16 turnovers (4 apiece for guards Williams, Hollins and Hoffarber). And the Gophers were just 4-15 from three (and that included an answered-prayer bank from Williams). And while they pulled down 15 offensive rebounds, it didn't add up because they couldn't finish. Armelin missed numerous lay-ups. Sampson missed bunnies. Williams did too. The Gophers shot 36 percent.
Mike Davis led Illinois with 17 and 9. Demetri McCamey, who along with Mike Tisdale was benched to start the game, put up 17 and 4 assists. The Illini needed the win as much as the Gophers did, having lost 5 of 7 themselves. The win pulls Illinois to 6-5 in conference. Minnesota, at 5-7, has no more room for error if they intend to position themselves to be an NCAA team once Nolen returns.
And while it's hard to state, I for one just don't see this team as NCAA material. At least not right now. This is a post for another day, but as much as injuries, transfers and off-the-court headaches have played a role this season and last, so has this team's recruiting. The Gophers spent time on Justin Cobbs last season. He wasn't a Big Ten point guard and he transfered. The Gophers are doing the same for Maverick Ahanmisi this year. He's not a Big Ten point guard. Devron Bostick disappointed (or wasn't given an opportunity, depending on your perspective). I think the jury is still out on Armelin and Hollins, but it's clear that neither of them have even an average stroke from the outside. Perhaps it's unfair to expect more from this trio of freshman, as Nolen's injury and Joseph's departure forced them into more prominent roles. And Williams? I'm not sure he's NBDL material right now.
At some point, someone needs to step up and consistently help Blake and Trevor. A guard or wing needs to step up (Hello, Rodney!). Absent that, the Gophers will continue to sputter down the stretch even against the middle and bottom of the Big Ten pack.
Up next is a trip to Iowa to face a Hawkeyes team that has been playing fairly well. They won at Indiana right after Minnesota couldn't. We'll know after that contest whether it's time to begin looking forward to Jerry Kill's first team.