First, Happy New Year to all. Now on to the men's basketball team's first loss of the year.
Congratulations to the Michigan State Spartans for playing a very solid basketball game in the Big Ten opener at Williams Arena. They proved to be bigger, faster and stronger. They hustled and beat Minnesota to loose balls. They played a more tenacious--and consistent--brand of basketball than our Gophers.
The final was 70-58, and it wasn't really that close.
The Spartans were excellent in the win. Kalin Lucas was electric in winning the match-up of sophomore point guards over Al Nolen. He finished with 24 points on 9-18 shooting. Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton both finished with double-doubles. And while Morgan's numbers aren't ridiculously impressive, the MSU junior impacts games in many ways. At one point when the Gophers still had a prayer in the second half, Damian Johnson had a lane on a break and attempted to throw one down on Morgan. Success would have brought Williams Arena to its feet. But Morgan rose higher and sent Johnson and his shot tumbling backwards.
So, credit certainly goes to the Spartans as they were the better team on New Year's Eve day. But the way the Gophers played calls for considerable scrutiny. I want to break this down into a few categories.
Playing Time: Colton Iverson, arguably MInnesota's most effective low-post player finished the game having played 15 minutes. This came during a game when Michigan State embarrassed the Gophers on the glass [ESPN says the rebounding advantage was 41-22]. Iverson had just one foul during this game. Just one. And he had 7 of MInnesota's rebounds in only 15 minutes. I can't explain this, but it shouldn't have happened. They needed Iverson on the floor.
Ralph Sampson III played just 10 minutes during this game, though at least his low minutes can be explained because he was in foul trouble.
There was absolutely no reason why Iverson shouldn't have been on the floor as often as possible. But instead, Tubby Smith taps Travis Busch to play the power forward position against a team that sees rebounding as its pride and joy. Busch played 17 minutes, and was who Smith turned to in the second half when the Spartans had a flurry of offensive rebounds.
Leaving the topic of big men, Jamal Abu-Shamala played 7 highly ineffective minutes against the Spartans. He came in and immediately missed a defensive assignment. He is simply not equipped to play on the offensive end of the floor against an athletic team like the Spartans. This has been clear for three years now, but inexplicably Smith continues to give the former walk-on token minutes. It needs to end, because even in limited time JAS hurts the Gophers.
Rebounding: Part of this goes back to what I stated above about playing time for Iverson, but even with the South Dakota native on the floor, the Spartans were going to win on the glass.
Blame here shouldn't be placed on any individual Minnesota player or Smith--I'm sure he's harped on rebounding all year. We can, however, look back to the Dan Monson era to find a collection of teams that struggled on the glass. Minnesota's ineptness in this department began with Monson.
However, rebounding isn't about two big men, it's a team effort thing. When a shot goes up, find your man, put your butt and all of your weight into him and box him out. More difficult than it sounds, but on so many occasions from my vantage point in The Barn Minnesota guards turned to watch a shot as a Spartan followed his own and grabbed a second chance. Yes, the Spartans were thicker and quicker on the inside and they were going to have a rebounding edge. But the war on the glass is a mindset, and the Gophers don't have the first clue at the moment.
Lawrence Westbrook: The junior from Arizona was completely out of control on numerous occasions on Wednesday. He had 11 points on 5-12 (0-4 from three). Westbrook was criticized as a prep athlete by even his coaches for being selfish with the basketball. Through his first two years in maroon and gold, Westbrook probably paid too much mind to those critiques. But as a junior, it's been the opposite.
It's not that he's shooting too much or too little. It's that instead of letting the offense come to him, instead of playing with a system or creating his own shots with some semblance of control, Westbrook on numerous occasions against MSU was playing at a speed that he couldn't control.
The junior needs to lead this team on the offensive end of the floor. He hasn't done that yet.
Defense: Whether it was of the half-court or transition variety, the Gophers didn't really didn't come to play defense against Tom Izzo's boys.
In transition--even after Minnesota scores--the Spartans embarrassed the Gophers. Minnesota players--too many to single out--missed assignments in transition. Some players didn't seem to know who they were going to guard when they came in off the bench. The result of course was quick, easy hoops. That's not Tubby Smith defense. And it's inexcusable.
In half court sets, the Gophers didn't help one another through, or even call out, back picks. they didn't rotate with the sense of urgency they did against Louisville. Those combined team defense deficiencies allowed the Spartans to establish a decent outside game in The Barn.
The second half defense was particularly atrocious, until the last two minutes or so of the game, when it had already been decided, when Smith decided to put heavy pressure on the Spartans. All of a sudden the Gophers forced Michigan State to waste some of the shot clock, created turnovers and foudns some too little, too late momentum. Why not apply that hard-edged pressure earlier in the game?
The loss against a top-10 or top-15 Michigan State team is certainly not the end of the world. There wasn't much to point to in this game to be positive. But this was one game, and for five Gophers it was their first test in the Big Ten.
We should also note that the Gophers had to open with a team that excels in an area [rebounding] where Minnesota struggles. This was obvious, and it will undoubteldy be used as a way to teach.
For me, the team defense was more inexcusable. If that's fixed by the time Ohio State comes to town Saturday, all will be just fine.