MILWAUKEE – Vegas was right. That wasn’t an upset.
What Middle Tennessee did to the Gophers in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday didn’t qualify as one of those of-my-gosh March Madness moments. Far from it.
The Blue Raiders won 81-72 because they are a better team. They’re faster and stronger, deeper and tougher.
The 12th seed played like a 5 seed, and vice versa.
MTSU looked like a veteran team on both ends of the floor. The Gophers looked like a young team that has zero depth and was hanging by a thread.
That lack-of-respect chatter before the game was just wasted breath. If those two teams played 10 times, MTSU would hold the edge.
That doesn’t discredit the Gophers’ turnaround season. It just means they’re still an incomplete team.
Their tournament success hinged on three key components: All-Big Ten point guard Nate Mason had to play like a star; Reggie Lynch had to avoid foul trouble; and the Gophers’ defense had to be suffocating.
None of those things materialized. Just the opposite.
Mason had a nightmarish game. Lynch committed silly fouls. And the defense fell apart like a soggy bratwurst bun.
“This is going to sting right now, but we know it will help us out,” Mason said.
Mason had a miserable time. He went scoreless in the first half and made only two of 10 shots. He finished with five points and more turnovers (four) than assists (three).
He also suffered a hip injury in the second half, causing him to limp. But coach Richard Pitino couldn’t afford to take him out for more than a quick breather because the Gophers have kiddie-pool depth.
MTSU’s 1-3-1 trap and 2-3 matchup zone were disruptive early, but even when the Gophers solved it, they missed open shots.
“Give us another game against them and I promise you we knock those same shots down,” Mason said. “But credit to them.”
The Gophers’ starting backcourt of Mason and Dupree McBrayer combined for three points on 1-for-10 shooting in the first half. Not going to win many games that way.
Nor does it help when Lynch commits two fouls in a span of two seconds. That seems almost impossible to do.
“Half of these calls are not good calls honestly,” Lynch said. “When that happened, obviously it sucks the energy out of our team. I tried to make sure everyone felt level-headed.”
The Gophers trailed by only six at halftime despite Lynch spending the final eight minutes on the bench. His third foul was a doozy, occurring 69 seconds into the second half.
Lynch lost control of the ball under the basket and was on the ground. For some strange reason, he reached up and took a swipe at Giddy Potts with his right arm.
“I didn’t think I fouled him,” Lynch said.
The refs saw it differently. That’s all that matters.
Lynch showed no awareness in that situation. He already had two fouls. The Gophers have no depth. And he committed a silly foul that accomplished nothing, except to put his team in a worse situation.
The Gophers didn’t lose because of officiating. They lost because they couldn’t stop MTSU from scoring.
Defense has been their backbone all season. They held opponents to 69.1 points per game and below 40 percent shooting. Yet MTSU ran its offense as easy as a summer breeze. The Blue Raiders made 48.3 percent of their shots, including seven of 13 three-point attempts.
The Gophers looked a step slow on close-outs and, with the exception of a second-half spurt that closed the deficit to four points, MTSU never seemed unsure of how to attack.
“We couldn’t get a stop when we needed it and it came back to bite us,” Mason said.
The disappointment will linger, but that will fade and the Gophers should feel encouraged by the program’s direction. Expectations will be high next season, rightfully so.
This loss exposed their deficiencies, though. They’re an incomplete team, especially in depth and shooting. Middle Tennessee’s winning wasn’t any upset or fluke.
The Gophers should feel proud of their season, but they have plenty of work to do.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org