The Big Ten is an improving league once again, filling up with power coaches. Tubby Smith's ability to teach defense means the Gophers don't have to worry about getting outclassed on the bench, means they no longer need pine for the days of Clem Haskins.
Saturday at The Barn, the No. 21 Gophers beat 24th-ranked Ohio State 68-59 because Smith's multiple defenses put a stranglehold on the Buckeyes' offense late in the first half.
Ohio State led 22-15 with 6:51 remaining in the first half. Point guard Al Nolen, often the guy who puts the go in Gophers, was on the bench with two fouls. "I thought we were in good shape when he picked up his second foul," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Considering the way the Gophers were manhandled against Michigan State this week, this looked like an early-season crisis.
At about that time, Smith switched from his favored, pressuring man-to-man defense to a zone. Once the Ohio State offense stalled, he threw in the occasional full-court press, leading to easy fast-break points and offensive confusion for Ohio State.
"We run a lot of defenses," Gophers guard Lawrence Westbrook said. "We practice a lot of them. It just depends who we're playing against."
Without an outstanding point guard to handle the pressure and make the Gophers pay for their aggressiveness, Ohio State was outscored 19-2 the rest of the half.
Ohio State hit three three-pointers against the zone to start the second half and cut the lead to 36-33. The Gophers defense intensified, and they went on a 24-9 run that secured their first Big Ten victory.
"We responded with the kind of physical play you have to have in the Big Ten," Smith said. "I thought there was a period there where we were going to get out and pressure them. Right before the half we changed our defense and went to zone, and I thought that made a significant difference."
This became a surprisingly easy victory over a ranked team because of Smith's defenses.
Good offenses require talent. Good defenses require all the elements of college coaching -- strategical expertise, the ability to motivate, in-game flexibility, holding players accountable for their effort and a knack for recruiting players who fit your style of play.
The Gophers won Saturday despite only one player reaching 15 points; despite only two players scoring in double figures; despite -- or because of -- 10 players playing 10 or more minutes.
Only Damian Johnson -- whose quickness and tenaciousness made the full-court press work -- played more than 27 minutes.
The Gophers lack a star scorer or an outstanding senior. They must win with defense and depth, and with Smith adjusting his defense to opponents' strengths.
Why did he switch to zone late in the first half? "Because they were beating us in man-to-man," Smith said. "We couldn't stop them off the dribble, they were attacking inside, we weren't doing a good job of rebounding the ball, they were beating us on the boards at that time."
In the second half, Gophers forward Paul Carter got into a scrum with a few Ohio State players after the game turned chippy. Smith stormed to the Ohio State side of the court to retrieve Carter, then scolded him all the way back to the bench.
Smith might have been doing that for show. After getting beaten up by Michigan State, the Gophers had to demonstrate more grit and the willingness to fight for a rebound.
"I was glad that Paul did what he did," Johnson said. "It showed that we're not backing down from anyone."
Minnesota won't beat good teams with offensive talent. To compete in the improving Big Ten, they will require a handful of diverse defenses, about 20 fresh legs, and the occasional coaching hunch.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org