The Gophers beat Northwestern 54-48. Minnesota had not won in Evanston since 2008. The game was sloppy and at times painful to watch, both are hallmarks of watching Minnesota play Northwestern. After a first half that an aesthetics paper would hold as an example of perfect ugliness, the Gophers came out with increased energy and aggressiveness in the second half. The four factors are below:
Minnesota's defense was broken in the first half. Defenders were not communicating on screens, leaving Northwestern with multiple open looks. Pitino was clearly displeased with the defensive effort and benched Walker, Smith, and Eliason for lapses on the defensive end of the floor. Looking globally, the Gophers have been making the same mistakes on the defensive end all year. While Pitino has gotten annoyed with reporters who have labeled the defense "atrocious" (hi Amelia!), it's tough to think of a better description. What is confusing is that individually the Gophers have a lot of defensive talent and experience, so consistent lapses in concentration make little sense.
Additionally, the Gophers were lucky to be down a possession at half time because they committed 10 first half turnovers. For the game, the Gophers turned the ball over on almost 30 percent of their possessions. Middle school basketball teams do a better job taking care of the ball. That they still won is a tribute to Northwestern's ineptitude. Any other team in the Big 10 would have feasted on the Gophers. At this stage in the season, it is simply inexcusable to make that many mistakes. I'm sure practice is going to be a blast this week.
Fortunately, a basketball game has two halves and DeAndre Mathieu was unguardable at the beginning of the second half. He scored four of the Gophers' first five baskts, everyone of which was a lay up off dribble penetration. For awhile, Minnesota's entire offense was a high ball screen to free Mathieu to drive. Mathieu finished with 18 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 4 turnovers. The negative assist to turnover ratio remains a concern, but tonight Mathieu's ability to take anyone off the dribble was imperative to secure the victory.
Austin Hollins did not have a good offensive game, but made his presence felt on the defensive end. He had only 6 points and committed 4 turnovers, but he owned Drew Crawford on the defensive end.
Dre Hollins had a quiet game finishing with 8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 turnover. He never was able to get in rhythm offensively, and Northwestern did a good job preventing him from catching the ball in optimal scoring situations.
Daquein McNeil impressed me again. Not only did he provide some scoring, he also played solid defensive minutes. His growth into the back up point guard has been promising, and hopefully this off season he can develop further with another year of strength and conditioning.
Walker and Eliason were quiet for a second straight game. After making a concerted effort to go inside early, Minnesota was unable to get their bigs the ball in position to make plays. At one point in the first half Eliason actually drove to the basket and traveled while attempting a jump stop. With the talent disparity on the inside, there has to be some frustration from both players that they were not more effective. On the bright side, the duo is simply too talented to be held off the score sheet for long, and they both played well on the defensive end. The bigs combined for five blocks and forced Northwestern to take a variety of poor shots in the second half.