In some respects, Minnesota's performance Thursday night against Illinois was imporessive. The Gophers dominated the Illini in the paint. They rebounded like Michigan State and established three scoring options in the post.
But in other respects, Minnesota's performance Thursday night was unfortunate. Had it not been for ice cold shooting from the outside and the team's relatively newfound sloppy play, the Gophers would have pulled an upset on the road against a nationally ranked team.
Minnesota's two vices came back to haunt them, as the team fell .52-41 to Illinois, a game that was entertaining and back-and-forth for 34 minutes, until the Gophers went scoreless the last 6 minutes of the game.
The Gophers came out of the locker room with a serious feel to their game. They were apply 3/4 court pressure to the Illini. They were forcing turnovers. They were moving on offence and crashing the boards. Damian Johnson was everywhere. But eventually the pressure-oriented defense subsided and the Gophers' offense couldn't function in the half court.
The Gophers shot 31 percent from the game and an atroucious 1 for 14 from three. Travis Busch provided the only make from beyond the arc. Not one guard had anything resembling a nice stroke last night. Al Nolen, atrocious on offense for the entire game in many respects, was 0 for 5. Devoe Joseph was 0 for 6. Lawrence Westbrook was an out-of-control 2 for 10. Paul Carter looked as if he was playing with moving rims, becuase I'm not sure he touched one in going 0 for 5.
But the daming part of it all, is the Gophers still could have won if they had just protected the basketball. During a second half stretch where the game was hanging in the balance, Minnesota's turnovers ruined the day. The Gophers gave the ball away 20 times, a number far too high to beat a team like Illinois, especially on the road.
The only reason the game wasn't a blowout in the Illini's favor was Minnesota's real dominance on the interior. The Gophers had an asontishing 43 to 28 rebounding advantage and scored the vast majority of its points in the paint. The three effective Gophers on the offensive end were Johnson, who had a team-high 18 and Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III who combined for 12.
Johnson, by the way, was a force and the BTN announcers rightly proclaimed all evening he MUST be considered for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He had 5 steals and three tremendous blocks while changing multiple other Illinois shots. He was everywhere Thursday night. He acted the part of the team-leader that we've wanted him to do. But his teammates didn't join him for the ride.
And while the Gophers did their part to lose the game, let's not taking anything away from the Illini. Chester Frazier was great on defense (4 steals). Trent Meacham, Gophers killer that he is, hit the open jumpers the Gophers could not. Mike Davis was impressive inside and Demetri McCamey hit a very important late three to seal Minnesota's fate.
As the game winded down, the BTN color man commented that after seeing the last two Minnesota games he is even more impressed with what the coaching staff has done with the team. He remarked that the Gophers don't have shooters nor guards or even big men that can consistently create their own shot. That's spot on. If the Gophers had one, just one perimeter player who could provide a consistent offensive output this team would beat Illinois more times than not.
The loss drops the Gophers to 8-8 in the conference. Couple that with Michigan's upset win over Purdue last night, and I believe the last two home games are must-wins for the Gophers. They have about one week off before hosting Wisconsin before wrapping the regular season up with a date with Michigan at The Barn. I believe the boys need to go 2-0. I know that they would probably be seen as 'in' by most experts at 9-9 in conference, but the team just hasn't performed well enough down the stretch. And the late season collapse could really haunt them with the selection committee.