And now the real season begins.
The Golden Gophers dispatched with relative ease the High Point Panthers Sunday night, ending an unblemished non-conference slate. Before we get to the Michigan State Spartans in a battle of nationally ranked teams on New Year's Eve day in Williams Arena, let's rehash how we got to this point.
The non-conference slate ended with a 82-56 win over Smith's alma mater, a game that was over midway through the first half. The Panthers, only a Division 1 team for a little more than a decade, might have proved to be one of the lighthest of opponents on Minnesota's non-conference schedule. The Panthers played hard but were simply outclassed.
Ralph Sampson III led the way with a career-high 17 points on 7-10 shooting. He did this by shooting with confidence from the elbow and the perimeter and by following shots and even making an awkward looking baby hook. Sampson's 17 weren't exactly pretty. His offense is raw, but he also showed a knack for passing in both the high and low post. It was inferior competition, but we saw a glimpse Sunday night of Sampson's potential.
Lawrence Westbrook led the team early and ended with 13 points. Devron Bostick shot well from the outside and ended with 11. Devoe Joseph and Blake Hoffarber also put up 11.
"A lot of guys had a chance to get out there and perform tonight," Smith said after the game. "I think that will give us a lot of confidence, especially going into Big Ten play against Michigan State. Blake [Hoffarber], Devron [Bostick] and Devoe [Joseph] were the ones that really helped us to pull away. That shows that they're getting better; they're learning the system. They are starting to understand where their shots are going to come from and how hard we're going to play."
Minnesota's scoring depth might prove to be the team's biggest asset moving forward. Al Nolen didn't score against High Point, but his 7 assists and zero turnovers were all the team needed on this night from its point guard. We shouldn't forget that when the Gophers needed Nolen's offense, just a week ago against Louisville, the sophomore guard led the way.
It has been the varied ways in which this team has won games that has led to Minnesota's best start in 60 years. Ten Minnesota players have scored in double-digits at least once this season. That's an amazing feat for any team. We can easily point to a relatively soft pre-conference slate as a reason for some of that success, but this team has beaten a very talented Louisville team, Virginia, potential NCAA tournament teams in Cornell and North Dakota State, and an OK Colorado State team in an unfriendly environment.
Against High Point, I wanted to see the team outrebound a team that lacked inside size. The Gophers did that. Sampson finished with six rebounds. Colton Iverson led the team with seven. The Gophers outrebounded High Point 36-29. The maroon and gold still need to do better in this department, but it was a start.
And in the half court, the Gophers excelled. The team shot 11-24 from three (45 percent). Most of that came in half court sets. The Gophers got the ball inside to both Sampson and Iverson. They played inside-out at least a little bit. They utilized a high-low game that is developing between Iverson and Sampson. Nolen penetrated and found big men underneath. Minnesota's set offense was much better against High Point, and that is easily seen by the team's 53 percent shooting from the floor.
Yes, it was just High Point. But it's also 12-0 and another step forward. To date, this team has tackled every obstacle in front of them, even if they haven't been forced to jump as high as we'd like. Come Wednesday--when Tom Izzo comes to The Barn (it's a Gold Out I hear)--the Gophers will have to jump just a little higher.