The Gophers came into tonight wanting to improve on three things:
They succeeded in two of the three (hint: the first two), and gave us a No. 4 (defensive pressure) and No. 5 (up-tempo offense) to be excited about, so we'll almost forgive them for the shooting bit ... almost.
On opening night, the Gophers buried American at the Barn, 72-36, in one of the most up-tempo, consistently intense, effectively pressing games I've seen them play.
Now before you go off on me with a litany of curses and shouts that their opponent just wasn't, um, that good, hear me out:
a) The Gophers played down to teams quite often last year, and the escape from that trend, no matter the competition, is encouraging.
b) A team can soundly beat another team and play without energy (we've seen that right?) and a team can soundly beat another team and do so in a contagious, energetic way -- and then maintain that energy despite the fact that they've got the team out of reach by four touchdowns or so.
The Gophers were the latter tonight. They should have dominated that team and they did. But they also did it in a way that inspired.
The thing that impressed me most was the Gophers' use of the full-court press. Coach Tubby Smith has long talked about pressing more, and playing more up-tempo on the other end. Tonight, the Gophers actually did it and maintained it pretty much throughout the whole game. They showed how well conditioned they were, how focused they were and how good they can be when they do that right.
This is how everyone wants this team to play, right? This is what the athletic roster seems built for?
"He preaches that every year, he tells us to go do it," Rodney Williams said of Smith and their style of play tonight. "That first five minutes when you're going, running, you get a little tired. But today it seemed like we had a little bit of juice and we were able to do that basically the whole game."
Everyone said afterwards that the team plans on trying to keep that game plan up. Indeed, it was very effective.
Other notes from tonight's win:
- I've been fawning a little, so I'll start out with a critique: shooting. Against better competition, the Gophers will not be able to get away with such poor shooting. They sank four of 22 shots from 3-point range tonight, and Austin Hollins -- who was fantastic in every other way -- made just 1 of 7. In the second half, when American went into a zone and the Gophers had a harder time working their way inside, that deficiency was especially obvious. Overall the Gophers shot just 43.5 percent from the field and an ugly 39.3 in the second half.
- Otherwise, Hollins really got the Gophers going tonight. His defense set the tone (he had five steals) and offensively he had a career-high 20 points. Trevor Mbakwe suggested it was a little birthday magic, as Hollins turned 21 yesterday.
- Joe Coleman was also stellar defensively, getting five steals of his own to go with his nine points.
- Elliott Eliason had three blocked shots to contribute to the Gophers 10 overall.
- From a rebounding perspective, the Gophers beat out American 41-30 -- a good margin, but it could have actually been more since the Gophers missed a handful of defensive rebounds that were well in their reach.
- Trevor Mbakwe tested his knee right and left tonight. He dove for a ball and ended up in the media's laps on press row, he jumped backwards off the raised court to save a ball at one point (and then jumped right back up and kept playing) and unleashed a vicious dunk late in the second half. He dunked in the last exhibition, against Southwest Baptist, but tonight's version seemed more explosive, like the Trevor of old. He seemed to be playing with a lot more confidence in the second half.
- After netting two assists and four turnovers in the two exhibitions, Andre Hollins turned the ball over just once to seven assists tonight.
- Rodney Williams also had a nice night for the Gophers, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds.
- One day after Tubby Smith made it seem like redshirting was off the table for freshman Charles Buggs, the coach said tonight after the game that it seemed likely. Smith said Buggs' parents were in town and that they would discuss the options.