Monday’s win over Michigan State was a big one for the Gophers and a significant momentum boost going forward. Certainly, it was just one game – one of 18 in the Big Ten that should be mostly challenging the whole way. But with a victory over better competition (excepting Duke) than the Gophers have played all season, there was plenty to garner from their biggest test since challenging the Blue Devils in the Bahamas.
In the next few weeks, a lot can change – but for now, these are three truths we learned about this Minnesota team from the Michigan State win:
This team is tough. As I told Paul Allen today on KFAN, the thing that maybe impressed me the most about the Gophers in this game is that they matched the intensity and physicality of Michigan State – a team renowned for its grit. The Spartans’ came in ranked No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, and yet the Gophers plowed into the post time and time again, shot 63 percent from the field and out-rebounded a team that has been very good in that regard – holding MSU to 32 boards. Only Kansas and Boise State have held the Spartans to fewer rebounds, and the Spartans had their worst effort of the year on defensive boards (with 16). Just as notable was the mental toughness the Gophers exhibited, coming back from a Michigan State lead late on going on their best run of the game at the very end.
The Gophers have lots of depth, but they don’t always need to use it. The bench helped out Minnesota plenty in the first half when the starters were clearly tired. The second group came in and gave the team a little spark, led by Oto Osenieks, who has looked pretty solid in his last couple games after a really slow start to the season. But that was mostly against MSU’s reserves. When the Spartans starters returned, the Gophers bench struggled, and with the game on the line, coach Tubby Smith barely played the reserves at all in the second half (Julian Welch, Andre Ingram, Elliott Eliason and Maverick Ahanmisi each got a handful of minutes). In years past, Smith has sometimes relied very heavily on the bench, even as it was getting pounded. Perhaps his decision to stick mostly with his first five on Monday was an indication of his trust in the bunch, more than he’s had in his teams in the past. In any case, Dre Hollins and crew lived up to the challenge and shut down the Spartans mostly on their own.
There are still flaws. The Gophers made just two of six shots from three-point range, made only 13 of 22 free throw attempts and had a disturbing barrage of turnovers, particularly at the start of the second half. Minnesota still looks lost against zone defenses and can be forced out of its game and into silly mistakes (in-bounding the ball, anyone?) when up against it. In other words, there are still plenty of blemishes with this team. Another way of looking at it: the Gophers had a good win, and they weren’t even playing their best. In any case, if Minnesota wants to continue this success, it’s got to clean these things up. The competition will only get stiffer …