Another test for the Gophers, another task notched.
Tonight’s game (and eventual win) against Northwestern showed us a new aspect of the Gophers we hadn’t yet seen, and that was how they would fare against a team that forced the (sluggish) pace and aimed to keep the Gophers out of their style of play.
And in the first half, that was worrying, no doubt, very worrying for Gophers fans. Against the 1-3-1 zone, the Gophers looked stagnant and flustered. They shot just 33.3 percent from the field in the first half, and didn’t get enough chances as the Wildcats continually played the run-the-clock-out game when they got the ball – often passing around right up to the shot clock and forcing the Gophers to play long, continuous stretches of defense.
Thankfully for the Gophers, they were up for the task – while their own shots weren’t falling, Minnesota held Northwestern to an even worse 27.8 percent shooting to keep the game under control, even if it was so slow and boring snores could almost be heard from the rafters.
That was success No. 1, but success No. 2 was more significant: the Gophers were (finally) able to break out of Northwestern’s game in the second half and dictate the tempo. First, they created some separation by
- A) Getting to the line (where Minnesota started out shockingly poor, making none of their first five attempts from the stripe) and converting and
- B) Getting a spark from Trevor Mbakwe, who had two momentous blocks and followed one with a transition dunk.
Then, Northwestern had to play their game. The Wildcats could no longer afford to spend 30 seconds on one possession, so suddenly Northwestern was forcing shots and the Gophers were scooping up their misses in transition. Quickly, we had a fast-paced game. Then Austin Hollins started getting opportunities. And we all know what happened then – he made FIVE consecutive 3-pointers. Actually, even so, it’s pretty dang impressive that the Gophers breached 60 points (nearly breaching 70) considering they had just 17 – 17!!! – at halftime.
One of the reasons that development was so good to see is that the Gophers will have to play at least three more of those games – another against Northwestern and two against Wisconsin. Teams that play like that might be at a disadvantage talent-wise, but because of their style of play can get opponents out of their comfort zone and challenge them by taking away their strengths. That the Gophers were able to break the mold, even if it took a while, is good news for them.
Other notes from the 69-51 win:
- Even for the Gophers, their offensive rebounding performance was quite impressive tonight. Minnesota grabbed 21 of its 25 misses. Let that sink in. That’s 84 percent. It was by far their best performance of the year in that regard. The national median is 30.4. So there’s that.
- Austin Hollins was the story tonight – and you can read it online here. (If you're reading right as I post, it will be updated once more.) But Trevor Mbakwe’s intensity was also really critical in picking up the Gophers tonight. While he had just four points, he finished with 11 rebounds. His impact continues to grow; it simply isn’t the same as a year ago, because the Gophers don’t have the set offensive focus any longer.
- Rodney Williams scored his 1000th career point 8:31 into the game. He’s the 38th Gopher to do so.
- Wally Ellenson came in only after the game was a blowout, but the freshman had a pair of dunks. It worries me that he’s trying to force his shots too much at this point, as he’s trying to solidify a spot in the rotation. In six minutes, he put up six shots (making two).
- Mo Walker came in with 3:30 remaining and played four minutes overall. At the beginning of the season, we thought the big could have a real impact in his sophomore year, but so far, he’s been largely inconsistent and hasn’t played much overall in the last few games. Walker has been dealing with shoulder soreness, but my guess is the bigger issue is that he looks slow and uninspired on the court. Tough to play with this squad unless he drops some pounds. I keep saying it because it’s true.