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Gophers Come Close, Fall 67-64 to Ohio State

If it's possible, the Golden Gophers are even more baffling to me after losing 67-64 to undefeated Ohio State Sunday afternoon. I'm not sure exactly how the Gophers only lost by 3 points or how the Buckeyes didn't blow Minnesota out of the gym after building a 16 point second half lead. But somehow, someway, the Gophers clawed back into the game with a chance to send the #2 Buckeyes into overtime. In the end, Austin Hollins' fade-away three as time expired came up well short, and Minnesota fell to 1-3 in conference play.

For the first 30 minutes, the Gophers looked completely over-matched. While they worked to take Jared Sullinger away from the Buckeyes early, the dynamic freshman made them pay for doubling down on him, as he easily broke Minnesota's double-teams with solid passes out of the post. When the Buckeyes weren't beating Minnesota inside, they were playing inside-out and hitting from the perimeter. And for those first 30 minutes, Ohio State's defense was the best I've seen played by any team all year. Nothing was easy. Passing lanes were challenged. The Gophers could do nothing.

And then I guess something changed? All of a sudden the Gophers were able to get to the basket. Al Nolen was able to penetrate and the Gophers found openings on offense. I'm not sure if it was because Ohio State began to rest on its laurels or the Gophers picked up the intensity. Whatever the case, the Gophers found themselves in an opportunity to steal a game on the road against the #2 team in the country, and while there were plenty of negatives--which I'll explore after the jump--the fact that this team held in during this game and made it competitive at the end, well, we should look at that as a positive heading into a much more manageable portion of the schedule.

Trevor Mbakwe was this team's leader Sunday. He was as much or more of a factor than Sullinger. Mbakwe finished with 16 points, 12 boards and 4 blocks in 33 minutes. Sullinger finished with 15 points and 12 boards in 36 minutes. As the Gophers worked to limit Sullinger, it was other Buckeyes who came through. David Lighty led all scorers with 19 points. And freshman Aaron Craft played 34 minutes off the bench, threw in 11 points and did well to keep Nolen from penetrating for most of the afternoon.

Minnesota's second half spurt proves that when this team wants to, it can compete with just about anyone. But that's also what makes this team so incredibly frustrating. They go to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and beat decent teams in North Carolina and West Virginia. Then they come home and struggle against cupcake teams and lose to Virginia. They play a great first half against Michigan State and then crumble in the second. They lay an egg in the first half against Ohio State, and then come roaring back. I'm not going to try and understand it. It's baffling. But below the jump I lay out some good and bad from Sunday's game and toss out a couple suggestions that might make this team a bit more even in its play.

First and foremost, the Gophers played far better defense in the second half against Ohio State. They were active. They forced a few turnovers and contested outside shots. For stretches during the first 20 minutes, the defense was suspect. Lighty was getting extremely open looks. The defense was even more suspect when Nolen and Mbakwe were on the bench in favor of a combination of Ralph Sampson III and Maverick Ahanmisi. Simply put, the Gophers are at a decided defensive disadvantage when both Sampson and Iverson are on the floor together. They're too slow when on the floor together.

And while Ahanmisi has been OK in the back-up point guard role, he's simply not capable of handling an in-your-face defense like Ohio State was offering. On three different occasions, twice in the first half and once early in the second, the Gophers were hanging around, within 10 points. Almost immediately once Tubby Smith brought in a wave of reserves, the Gophers folded. During one first half stretch, the back-up backcourt of Ahanmisi, Hollins and Chip Armelin turned the ball over on 3 consecutive possessions. And with Mbakwe being Minnesota's only consistent player during the first half, it's baffling that Coach Smith would sit him on the bench for two breathers. Mbakwe wasn't in foul trouble. He was playing with energy and giving Minnesota second-chance opportunities.

With this collection of players, the Gophers aren't going to win games unless Coach Smith lets his best players play as many minutes as possible. Take Ohio State today. Thad Matta played 7 players. Jon Diebler and William Buford logged 38 minutes apiece. Sullinged logged 36. Craft was in for 34 minutes. For Minnesota? Minnesota's best played, Mbakwe, played 33 minutes. Nolen played 31. Neither was ever in serious foul trouble.

Coach Smith's insistence on playing every player is simply a detriment to this team. While Ahanmisi, Armelin and Hollins have all had their moments, none are ready to compete against a team like Ohio State. And even if Coach Smith wants a 9 man rotation, there's no reason why Ahanmisi, Armelin and Hollins should be on the floor at the same time, especially if Mbakwe is on the bench. A lineup of Ahanmisi, Armelin, Hollins, Sampson and Iverson doesn't give this team a chance to compete against team's like Ohio State.

The Gophers probably shouldn't have won this game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are a better team. But Minnesota had a chance at the end. I wonder what it would have been like if Coach Smith wouldn't have handed Thad Matta 7-10 minutes with both Nolen and Mbakwe on the bench.

Other thoughts:

  • Colton Iverson is clearly playing superior basketball when compared to Sampson. Iverson was able to handle the physicality of Sullinger and hold his own defensively. When Sullinger bodied up Sampson, Minnesota's junior folded. Iverson also seems more capable of occasionally scoring with his back to the basket. He's not pretty. But he's the more effective big man.
  • The Gophers turned the ball over 15 times to Ohio State's 12. That's just too many turnovers. Ahanmisi and Hollins combined for 5 turnovers.
  • Blake Hoffarber couldn't get off. Had he, this might have been a different outcome. With 15 seconds left, down 3, Coach Smith clearly tried to draw up something to get Hoffarber open. He didn't sniff an inch of open real estate, as he didn't for most of the game. A few possessions earlier, a frustrated Hoffarber pushed off (it wasn't called) and threw up a fade-away three. It grazed the front of the rim. Despite being relatively ineffective, Hoffarber logged a team-high 34 minutes
  • I liked Rodney Williams today. He wasn't great, but was 4-7 from the field. I particularly liked his drive and pull-up jumper in the lane. If Rodney can develop that game, along with his increasing ability to slash to the basket, he will be Minnesota's first player of the Tubby Smith era that can actually get his own shot with regularity.
  • The Gophers now have Purdue at Williams Arena in a virtual must-win. At 1-3, most hopes of a Big Ten championship are in the rear-view mirror, but the Gophers have lost on the road in three tough venues. Can they shake that off and hold serve at Williams Arena? We'll find out next week.