ASHEVILLE, N.C. – No Big Ten team has been tested in close games more in the first week of the college basketball season than Ben Johnson's Gophers, but they survived to start 3-0.
Any one of the U's first three opponents could've walked away with a win. But Kansas City, Western Kentucky, and Princeton were eventually outplayed to finish games.
The Gophers are vulnerable in areas, but the latest thwarted comeback attempt was Sunday's 87-80 double overtime win against Princeton for the Asheville Championship title.
"I wanted to get in this tournament to get a Western Kentucky and to get a Princeton to see what we have and what we're made of," Johnson told the Star Tribune after Sunday's win.
"I thought our guys battled. I didn't think they broke. This is probably the third game in a row where they could have at different stretches and were able to stay poised and maintain their confidence … It's easy to have your confidence shaken. They kept their resolve, and they kept their fight, and they stayed aggressive, and they pulled it out."
Here are four observations from Minnesota's two victories at the Asheville Championship last week.
Entering the season, Johnson couldn't pinpoint one player he clearly thought could carry the scoring load on a nightly basis, especially since he was bringing in so many mid-major transfers.
Sure, Jamison Battle from George Washington, E.J. Stephens from Lafayette, and Luke Loewe from William & Mary put up big numbers at their previous stops. But what would happen when they had to do that at a higher level? Even Payton Willis, who played for the Gophers two years ago, was coming from the College of Charleston last season.
The Gophers found out in Asheville that Battle and Willis are ready to put the offense on their shoulders – at least against non-Big Ten opponents. The pair was named to the all-tournament team after combining for 53 points and 21 rebounds against Princeton.
When it came to finishing games, Willis was the catalyst, so it wasas no surprise he took home Asheville Championship MVP honors. no surprise he He had 12 of his 19 points in the second half against the Hilltoppers, who cut a 16-point deficit to a basket with three seconds left Friday. The 6-4 senior guard then exploded for 23 of his career-high 29 points in the second half and two overtimes to lead the Gophers on Sunday night.
Battle, who is averaging a team-best 20.7 points on 51.2% shooting from the field and 37.5% from three-point range this year, had some monster first-half performances with 18 and 14 points against Western Kentucky and Princeton, respectively. The Gophers led at halftime in both games behind the 6-7 sophomore forward's sweet shooting stroke.
The Gophers were picked to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten for a reason. They not only had 10 newcomers mostly unknown to the casual college hoops fan, but they also lacked depth.
Johnson discovered, though, he has a seven-man rotation he feels pretty comfortable with – and they're as experienced as any group in the conference.
Battle, who has two seasons under his belt, is the only non-senior who plays significant minutes, but he also leads the Big Ten with 41.0 minutes per game. The top four minutes played leaders in the conference are from the Gophers, including Loewe (39.0), Willis (38.7), and Stephens (38.3).
Part of those inflated numbers are from Sunday's double overtime win, but the Gophers have also leaned heavily on their starters so far this year, including senior big man Eric Curry (career-high 29.3 minutes). Only Sean Sutherlin (16.0 minutes) and Charlie Daniels (12.3) have seen extended game action off the bench. How long will this last? Former Gophers coach Richard Pitino learned the hard way that heavy minutes can wear on players in a grind-it-out Big Ten season.
Center of attention
Former Gophers 7-foot center Liam Robbins hasn't played for Vanderbilt yet this season while dealing with a lingering foot injury, so he would not be available to help even if he didn't transfer.
Robbins' numbers last season ranking second on the team in points (11.7), first in rebounds (6.6) and first in the Big Ten in blocks (2.7) were impressive. But Curry has filling in nicely so far now that he's healthy after an injury plagued career.
The sixth-year 6-9 senior is averaging 8.7 points, a team-best 6.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks, which are career-best numbers. Similar to last season, though, the frontcourt depth drops off considerably at center.
Daniels has been used sparingly this season, but he played some critical minutes when Curry picked up a fourth foul midway through the second half against Princeton. The 6-9 Stephen F. Austin transfer isn't a scoring threat, but he had four rebounds and a block in 12 minutes Sunday.
The Gophers played 6-11 freshman Treyton Thompson for the first time this season, but he only got into the game for a minute at the end of the first overtime.
As much as Curry has been able to be productive this season, he's not enough inside for the Gophers to be balanced offensively. They've been outscored in the paint by all three opponents and 122-82 combined this season, including 56-44 against the undersized Tigers.
Free throw fancy
What happened to the Gophers at the foul line against Princeton might be an aberration. They shot a season-low 15-for-29 (51.7%), including just 8-for-17 in regulation.
Johnson said fatigue was a factor in the misses down the stretch. But you could argue that was the biggest reason Princeton was able to extend the game into extra periods.
Battle, Willis, and Sutherlin were a combined 13-for-24. But Battle shot 78.7% and 84.6% on free throws in his first two seasons at George Washington. He was also 6-for-7 in the first two games.
Sutherlin was 6-for-11 in the Asheville title game on free throws, but he's still shooting 70% this year. The biggest concern is probably Willis if things continue. His free throw percentage has dropped from last season 76.7 to 46.2% after shooting 4-for-7 on Sunday.