So many missed opportunities last night to not just win the game but to solidify themselves as the 6-seed in the Big Ten Tournament as well as move up their seeding for the NCAA Tournament. And if you don't care about the bigger-picture ramifications of last night's game (which we all do), you should care about how far back that game set basketball in general.
As for the game, the Gophers had a number of opportunities at different stages of the game but each time they were unable to make the necessary play or shot to put them ahead. The Nebraska lead would occasionally shrink from four down to one or even tied and the Gophers would have one or two possessions to finally take the lead; ending the any remaining hope that the Huskers could win. But each time they couldn't finish the play, make the key free throws or hit the open shot. I don't know that Nebraska's confidence was growing but it was clear that we got tighter down the stretch and nobody wanted to be the hero last night.
As a team the Gophers made just three threes out of 13 attempts. From the free throw line they shot 50% making 10 of 20. Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams both particularly struggled from the field last night. Austin airballed two 3-pointers and hesitated to take the ball to the basket on a key 2-on-1 with Andre Hollins. Rodney also did not make a shot and finished with zero points. Combined they shot 0-9, 0-4 from three. It got so bad for Austin that the junior was benched for the final few minutes in favor of Ahanmisi.
Was there anything positive last night? The bench continued to play well outscoring the Husker bench 26-4. That stat is a bit misleading because technically Andre Hollins came off the bench, but even if you move it around to include what is really the true Gopher bench they still outscored Nebraska's bench 22-4. I really like how Tubby has shortened the bench and then given a bit more time to the four guys who are seeing the floor. I hope that this experiment of starting Andre Ingram and Julian Welch is over, but I do think those guys should be given about 18 minutes of playing time.
Elliott Eliason continued to play well and contribute in positive ways. But this is the type of team Eliason should succeed against. Teams that lack athleticism in the post (read teams with big men slower than he) are teams he can succeed against.
Trevor Mbakwe played well too scoring 15 points while grabbing "just" 6 rebounds. But the problem is when we are getting next to zero production out of our perimeter, it becomes easy to mitigate Mbakwe's effectiveness. If you don't have to guard Austin Hollins and if Rodney Williams is absolutely invisible on the offensive end, even a team like Nebraska can make it really difficult for Mbakwe to get decent looks at the rim.
Often times I give credit to our opponent when we lose, but I just can't do it this time. I was thoroughly unimpressed with Nebraska and am absolutely pissed that we lost to them. Offensively they have perimeter guys who jack up contested threes or off-balance jump-shots. Their big men are not particularly skilled. And defensively they employ a clutch-and-grab defense that works until the refs start blowing their whistles (which is probably why they put teams to the line at a much higher rate than anyone else in the Big Ten). The Gophers win this game last night by just making a few free throws or just a couple open jump-shots. With as awful as we played, this game was still there to be won if someone would have just stepped up to take control. My intent is not to rail on the Huskers, they are doing the best they can with limited talent and they won the game last night. But this might have been the most embarrassing loss of the year in my book.
"They outplayed us, outworked us, outcoached us and were very deserving of the win," Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. "We just didn't do some things. Shooting was a big part of it. They shot better from the free-throw line and seemed to want it more."
And now I'm sure the conversation will turn back to Tubby. He bought himself a reprieve from criticism after last week's two wins. But all good will was lost with last night's debacle on the road. I'd like to come out defending him saying it is hard to blame Tubby for Austin airballing two threes. It is hard to blame Tubby for his team missing 10 free throws. Both of those statements are true. I think the offense executed fairly well last night and got themselves some open shots, they were just missed. I thought the defense was very good last night, albeit against an offensively challenged team. But unfortunately Tubby has already cashed in any amount of grace this year. Maybe this time the blame falls less on him than the execution by his players, but far too often the blame has belonged on him and he was all too willing to deflect away from his coaching.
This game was also frustrating because it was an opportunity to build on the previous two wins. It was an opportunity to solidify the 6-seed in the Big Ten Tourney. And it was a golden opportunity to build on the NCAA Tournament resume and boost our seeding out of the dangerous 7-10 seed range. But the Gophers failed.
One game left, one more opportunity to get a road win and once again silence critics. Purdue is a much more talented team that plays very good defense, this appears as though it will be a monumental challenge for the Gophers.