In beating a highly-regarded Louisville team on a neutral court Saturday, the Gophers men's basketball team put its claim on something last year's collection didn't have: a resume-boosting win. And, oh yeah, it is easily the biggest win of the Tubby Smith era.
The resume factor is the important takeaway for NCAA Tournament purposes, but if we want to look at how good this team can be, it's important to note that Minnesota won this game on the defensive end of the floor. Louisville went into Arizona averaging around 80 points per game. Tubby's defense wasn't as soft. Minnesota defenders cut off penetration lanes, rotated with crisp efficiency and doubled down on the post quickly.
We forced jump shots and 35 second violations. And after the first few posessions when Tubby had bigger, slower defenders on Louisville's impressive Earl Clark, Minnesota eventually neutralized the big man by deploying quicker more agile defenders. Damian Johnson gets credit for holding Clark somewhat in check and even Travis Busch, who had the game of his career, was assigned to cover Clark in the last two minutes of the game and held his own.
Busch, it must be noted, played very well in a number of areas. He was scrappy. He outrebounded bigger, taller and faster Cardinals. And he scored a career-high 13 points. And as Louisville put on more intense full-court pressure down the stretch, Busch played an integral role in Minnesota's ball-handling.
The other player to call out for attention here is Al Nolen. He scored Minnesota's first seven points and helped set the tone early. When Louisville crept back into the game, it was Nolen who, with the floor spread, repeatedly took his defender to the rim, drawing contact to get to the line. He finished the game with 18 points and went 13 for 17 from the charity stripe. When Minnesota's offense stagnates, the team desperately needs a player who can create opportunities. Nolen did that Saturday and was clearly superior to Louisville's Edgar Sosa.
While Nolen and Busch had nice offensive days--and Blake Hoffarber came up with a clutch 15 from the perimeter and the free-throw line--the story has to be the defense. Louisville shot 39 percent against Minnesota, compared to their 44 percent average. The Cardinals went long stretches in the second half without a field goal. Rick Pitino became so frustrated at one point that when his Cardinals were retreating back onto defense he yelled at one of his guards to run an offense instead of simply throwing up shots.
Team defense, that's how Minnesota secured its 70-64 resume-boosting win.
And before I move on to a few other notes from Saturday's win, take the time to savor this one Golden Gopher fans. Our basketball program has endured quite a bit over the last 10 years or so. Someday down the line we might all look back at this game as a program changer.
Now, a few other observations.
- With Ralph Sampson III in early foul trouble Jon Williams played a fair amount of minutes and held his own. I think he's going to be a big factor for this team.
- Damian Johnson led the Gophers with 7 rebounds. The Gophers kept a more physical and more athletic team at bay on the boards. Minnesota held a one rebound advantage when the final buzzer rang with chants of "Overrated" in the background.
- Lawrence Westbrook did nothing in his return to Arizona. He got in fould trouble early and never got out of it. Westbrook finished with just two points.
- The officiating was the worst I have seen in some time. I read some of the Louisville open thread at Card Chronicle and Louisville fans agreed.
- As should be the case, Jamal Abu-Shamala saw his minutes decrease against a team that is superior athletically.
- If you didn't see the game, Paul Carter didn't play. Myron Medcalf had previously reported that Carter would play, despite not being 100 percent.
Up next: Awaiting the top 25 polls to be released! And then the Gophers host Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday.