Purdue did Tubby Smith a favor Thursday night. The Boilermakers calmed the masses, offering a reminder that while Smith has made Gophers basketball matter again, he might be another year or two away from presenting more than an intriguing bunch of scrappers.
In winning 70-62 at Williams Arena, the Boilermakers throttled the Minnesota offense all game, clamping on an aggressive man-to-man defense that kept the Gophers from taking any uncontested three-pointers, forcing them to rely on offensive rebounds and free throws to score.
"We just couldn't buy a basket tonight," Gophers point guard Al Nolen said. "It just really killed us."
The Gophers shot 27.6 percent, including 15.8 percent from the three-point line. They managed only 16 baskets in 40 minutes. Forced to rely on what coaches like to call "tough twos" -- contested two-point shots -- the Gophers never looked comfortable.
There was a good reason for that: Purdue is the better team. So was Michigan State in the Big Ten opener. While Minnesota figures to make the NCAA tourney, two decisive losses at home to the teams that might be the class of the conference should properly frame the Gophers' accomplishments.
They're good, but not elite.
They're deep, but they lack an every-game, go-to scorer.
They possess size inside, but in the form of freshmen liable to get pushed around by physical teams.
They are relevant again, but they have yet to restore the Barn to its former status as one of the toughest places in the conference to play.
They went 0-7 against ranked teams during last year's conference schedule; they are 1-2 against ranked teams in this year's conference schedule, and their victory over Ohio State does not look as impressive now that the Buckeyes have fallen out of the top 25.
Smith has made the Gophers more competitive. He has ensured that they will play good defense, that they will play hard. He has yet to ensure that they will solve whatever defense confronts them.
They have lost two in a row since their rousing victory at Wisconsin. Northwestern beat them by applying an extended 1-3-1 zone. The Gophers might as well have been facing the Pittsburgh Steelers -- Minnesota had trouble getting within 25 feet of the basket, much less running a coherent offense.
"It doesn't look like it, but we do work on passing every day," Smith said. "We're probably going to have to go to an offense that makes us throw it inside."
Thursday night, in what everybody kept calling a big game, the Gophers again struggled to run their offense, unless their goal was to drive into the paint and panic.
"You hold them to 28 percent, there's no way I thought that would happen," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "We didn't let them get in rhythm. We didn't let them get set."
The game was, as TV announcers like to say, not as close as the score indicated. The Gophers pulled to within six with 40 seconds left on Nolen's putback, but there was never a sense at any point in this game that Purdue had to sweat.
One solution to the Gophers' scoring woes would be the salvaging of Blake Hoffarber as an offensive player. Hoffarber gained fame by making a shot from the seat of his shorts; now he struggles even when shooting alone during pregame warmups.
Hoffarber missed his three three-point attempts Thursday, and the Gophers went 3-for-19 from beyond the arc. Hoffarber is 4-for-28 from three-point range in seven conference games.
"Everybody's pulling for him to make a shot," Smith said. "We've got some pretty good shooters, but we didn't shoot the ball well tonight."
Playing at home, coming off a disappointing road loss, facing a ranked team on national TV, we should have expected the best the Gophers had to offer on Thursday night. That might be exactly what we got.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. firstname.lastname@example.org