Is this a new Gophers team I see?

On Wednesday, the Gophers extended their streak of strong play, overcoming LaSalle, 70-61 in Philadelphia. This time, I wasn't there, so I just watched it on TV like the rest of you, but what I saw impressed me once more and left me feeling like this team could be significantly better next year.

I think the biggest excitement about this team is it seems everyone is really starting to hit their stride now. Andre Hollins -- who has become the makeshift leader of the previous three games -- had 13 points, but it was Rodney Williams (wow) and Austin Hollins who really took the reins.

The team has seemingly matured a lot in the past two weeks. The guys are making smarter plays, fewer painful turnovers (although there were still some of those tonight) and are ... scoring. They're doing it in the paint, from behind the arc, and everything in between. And the result of all that is a better-looking Minnesota team, and one that doesn't shy away when the momentum swings against them.

Maybe one of the biggest differences of the last few games is a feel that can only be understood by someone who has watched every minute of Gophers basketball this year. It feels like they're in it now, like they have control even when they're down, and the fear that seemed to take hold in late-game situations is no longer there. 

The Gophers are not invincible of course -- after all, they just lost to Michigan because of the same late-game execution issues they've struggled with all year. But the change in this squad is promising.

Just a few notes from the win:

  • On Monday, coach Tubby Smith said Ralph Sampson III would likely play tonight and had been back practicing with the team, in contact situations (although he was moving gingerly at times, he said). But the senior didn't play at all for the third consecutive game. No hints on whether he'll play the next one.
  • The Gophers will face Miami in the second round. Apparently, we'll be finding out later tonight whether it will be at Miami or whether the Gophers will get a home game. They did apply to get one at the beginning of the tournament. From what I understand, the NCAA looks at several different factors-- including seeding, but also considering location, interest, ability to pack an arena, etc.
  • Williams played all 40 minutes and finished with 21 points, including 17 in the first half. He was seriously into it tonight, looked fired up out there. And that dunk ... whoooo-ee!
  • LaSalle can dunk too, as we learned. Ramon Galloway had three, Jerrell Wright had three and Earl Pettis added one. That was fun.
  • Austin Hollins was sublime tonight as well, scoring in a plethora of ways. He finished with 16 points, two rebounds, three assists, three steals and three turnovers.
  • Stat via BTN Stats guy: the Gophers are 37-1 when shooting better than 51 percent under Smith. Tonight, they shot 51.9.
  • After the Gophers lit it up from behind the arc in the last three games -- making 30 in those games -- Minnesota made just one tonight.

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