For the second time in three days, the Minnesota men's basketball team whipped a Big Ten opponent in Williams Arena. For the second time in as many games, the Gophers played as a team, demonstrated effort and intensity and didn't let up on their way to a rout of the Indiana Hoosiers.
Maybe the lads had a little extra momentum after the unfortunate loss in Bloomington earlier this year. Or maybe they've finally coalesced as a team after the myriad distractions earlier in the year. Whatever the case, this two game stretch against Wisconsin and Indiana has seen the Gophers play their best ball of the season.
Now let's hope it continues when #4 ranked Purdue comes into The Barn Wednesday night.
There's a lot to point out that the Gophers did well Saturday night in the 81-58 win, but I want to start with Damian Johnson, who has taken his fair share of shots from the peanut gallery this season. Johnson seemed to be the bets player on the court against the Hoosiers and he did just about everything. He was an intimidating presence around the basket and recorded three blocks. He fought on the glass and led the Gophers with 10 rebounds. And he demonstrated an ability to hit down the outside three and also play with his back-to-the-basket. He finished with 16 points.
Johnson's fellow senior, Lawrence Westbrook, also had a nice game. He didn't force ill-advised shots. And he didn't turn the ball over. He played within the confines of the team concept and led the team with 20 points and was 4-6 from beyond the arc.
As a team, the Gophers seem to be finally understanding their roles. Blake Hoffarber had just six points, but he didn't force any outside shots. He got a few good looks coming around screens but otherwise let the offense come to him. Devoe Joseph was also slightly more poised as the team's primary point guard. He realized mismatches and penetrated when he had the opportunity and for the most part had Minnesota playing an inside-outside game. Joseph ran the team well.
Ralph Sampson III continues to mature. He finished with 11 and 8 and, like Johnson, was a presence in the middle.
The Gophers didn't play as much "big ball" with Sampson, Iverson and Johnson or Paul Carter on the floor as they did against Wisconsin. Considering Indiana lacks size, this shouldn't be too surprising. But Minnesota did play a bit more of its new 3-2 defense which still seems to be forcing opponents into deep three point attempts. This defense does fit Minnesota's personnel well, as Carter, Johnson or Rodney Williams have the length to play at the top of the zone. And we have enough girth and length to clog up the lane. The defense also masks Minnesota's on-the-ball weakness when playing man-to-man. WIthout Al Nolen, our guards simply are a weakness at times when putting pressure on the ball.
The game with the Hoosiers was so lopsided midway through the second half that Gophers football player and basketball walk-on Bryant Allen got into the act. Quickly after entering the game he hit a three from the top of the key as the student section chanted his name. That was fun to see. Allen seemed to handle the ball just fine, but other than that first shot, his shooting looked suspect. That said, he's a freshman and could conceivably find a role on this team as the season or his career goes on.
A few other thoughts:
- Rodney Williams alley-oop dunk from Ralph Sampson III was great. But I'd prefer seeing Williams take a player off the dribble. Williams also contributed with his athleticism on the defensive end.
- For the second straight game, Justin Cobbs was better than he had been as the team's back-up point guard.
- Colton Iverson seems to be handling the ball once he gets it in the post much better. He's seeing the floor a little bit and hit Paul Carter on a cut towards the basket at one point. Sometimes though it seems like Iverson is almost hyperventilating out there. I think the game hasn't quite slowed down for him yet. When it does, I think he's going to be very good as a back-to-the-basket player.
- Paul Carter didn't stand out. Maybe that's because Johnson was playing so well and Carter saw some of his minutes go to Williams in the blow out. That's OK, but I want to see Carter emerge a bit more heading into next season where he should take over for Johnson as a starter.
- There was talk over at the GopherHole about how Verdell Jones III would fit into this MInnesota team and many suggested he would be the team's starting point guard. I've thought that at times as well, but I don't think he's a better four-year player than Devoe Joseph.
- For how much praise Tom Crean receives for "re-building" Indiana, I don't see all that much that he's accomplished so far for the Crimson and Cream. The Hoosiers seem to lack any size and their 2010 recruiting class looks to include two more wing players. Maybe Crean still thinks he's competing in the Big East where slashers trump size.