Gophers coach Tubby Smith came up with a brilliant idea on the eve of his team's game against sixth-ranked Ohio State.
Maybe, Smith said deadpanned, the Gophers should make a mask of injured forward Trevor Mbakwe's face and have Ralph Sampson wear it. A year ago, Mbakwe bumped, banged and traded blows with Ohio State's wide-load forward Jared Sullinger, leaving the Buckeyes star with a bloody nose after one meeting.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, the injured Mbakwe was unavailable to tackle that assignment Tuesday night. He was in street clothes at the end of the bench, putting that responsibility on Sampson's shoulders, which was enough to make any coach queasy. Hence, Smith's mask idea.
"Make him think it's Trevor," Smith said.
The way things began, it looked as if Tubby should've molded masks of Trent Tucker, Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson and Jim Brewer as well. That might have helped.
As it stood, the current collection of Gophers simply were overmatched. Any attempt to analyze Ohio State's 78-68 victory at Williams Arena should begin and end with this premise: One team has lots of talent, the other doesn't.
It's that simple.
The Buckeyes are bigger, faster, more athletic and more skilled. In fact, the Gophers probably have only one player -- Rodney Williams -- who could start for the Buckeyes, and even that's debatable.
The Gophers certainly deserve some credit for making the score reasonably close after a dismal start, but the Buckeyes also looked as if they put their game on cruise control after building a 21-point lead. They stopped being aggressive on offense and settled for three-pointers, especially William Buford. And they tried things on defense that coach Thad Matta admitted he hadn't seen all season.
"I'm not exactly sure what we were doing," he said. "It will be good to get back and take a look at the film so they can explain what they were doing."
The difference in talent level between the teams looked seismic for most of the first half. At one point during that stretch, Lenzelle Smith missed a free throw, got his own rebound and scored on a reverse layup. You don't see that too often.
"At the very beginning, I didn't think we were going to miss a shot," Matta said.
Even as the Gophers chipped away at the lead, the Buckeyes never really looked in danger of losing control. They just either made a shot, grabbed a rebound or got a defensive stop whenever the time called for it. That's what good teams do, particularly on the road. It also doesn't hurt to have a 1-2 combination like Buford and Sullinger.
"I was never at ease until the horn sounded," Matta said.
He might have been the only one in The Barn who felt that way. The Gophers needed a monster effort from Sampson, their senior, but it didn't happen, which was fairly predictable. He picked up his second foul against Sullinger 6 minutes, 23 seconds into the game and went to the bench for the rest of the half. He collected his third foul 1:25 into the second half and played only 12 minutes total. He finished with four points, four fouls and two rebounds.
The Gophers realized Sampson had no chance defending the 6-9, 265-pound Sullinger by himself in the post. He needed help. Lots of it.
The Gophers wanted to double-team Sullinger when he caught the ball in the post, hoping to force the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible and not allow him to establish his position. They also wanted to throw different looks at him.
Sullinger spent as much time on the perimeter as he did inside in the first half. He took only 11 shots for the game and finished with 23 points (10 on free throws), eight rebounds and only one turnover. Matta described Sullinger's performance as "intelligent," meaning he didn't force things.
Gophers freshman point guard Andre Hollins figured out one way to slow Sullinger in the second half. With no one open on an inbounds play, Hollins rifled the ball into Sullinger's gut to avoid a five-second call. Sullinger tumbled to the floor, dazed but unhurt.
Hey, it beats wearing a mask.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com