Read my full story on Minnesota's 89-80 win over Rutgers at Williams Arena on Saturday here.
Three quick observations after the Gophers picked up their first conference win:
Finally. In the last four years I've been covering Minnesota hoops, this is the most any Gophers team has needed a win. At first glance this fall, a game against Rutgers at home looked like a pencil-in W. But after Minnesota started 0-5 and the Scarlett Knights showed some scrap vs. Wisconsin (a win) and at Maryland (a near loss), the outlook changed quite a bit. This squad was limping, so just putting one game in the victory column is a big deal. Afterward, the locker room was lively again; the players acted as though they had just crawled out from underneath an arena- sized brick. Whether the Gophers can make a run in the days ahead is another story. But for this team to make any kind of improvements in a season that will likely be harder than most thought all the way around, a spark of hope and a few moments of 'fun' on the court again were necessary.
Andre Hollins is back. It's been a long time coming for the senior guard, and the in between had clearly been weighing on him, even though coach Richard Pitino said one of the reasons he stuck by his veteran in the starting lineup was because his struggles didn't show in practice. Hollins had scored in double digits just twice in the previous seven games, and was shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Pitino could talk about his defense and intangibles all he wanted -- a slump like that from the team's best shooter is always going to have a big impact. The Memphis native made a statement almost instantly that all of that would be changing. Hollins scored a three for the Gophers' first bucket of the game and kept going until he hit 31 -- the second-highest total of his career and the most he's scored since his sophomore season. He came off screens, shot seven threes (tying a career-high), dunked in traffic for the first time ever (Turf toe? Doesn't seem to be a thing) and even played to contact a little bit, something we've seen him shy away from lately. Minnesota will need this version if it's going to make a run. Where would the Gophers have been in this game if Hollins hadn't had a monster game? Not looking so positive.
Still a long ways to go. The Gophers' killer instinct is still a little weak, a fact they made clear in the second half when the foot-over-throat move was just simply lacking. Rutgers charged back several times and Minnesota hit enough big shots to go blow-for-blow with its scrappy opponent, but the defensive pressure was lax and the execution in the half court still needs a lot of work. The Gophers' only strong post defender, Elliott Eliason, got just four minutes of playing time and his struggles, combined with a dose of reality in the 0-5 start, probably has Pitino eying the future -- and Bakary Konate -- a little more. That means Mo Walker will have to get better and the guards will have to be sharper. Minnesota's toughness is still suspect. Rebounding problems -- after losing the boards battle 39-28 -- are not going away. And the free throw concerns? Still there despite Pitino forcing every culprit to shoot extras after practice. Minnesota went 11-for-17 (64.7 percent on Saturday). A run in the stretch ahead and a respectable finish to the season is possible (I said respectable, not NCAA tournament), but the Gophers will have to improve the areas that have plagued them if they want to seize those goals.