Read my full game story on Minnesota’s 69-61 loss to No. 1 Michigan State here.
Three quick observations after the Gophers’ Big Ten home opener:
Best basketball I’ve seen this year. There was a pretty big asterisk on this matchup with MSU star Denzel Valentine sitting due to a recent minor knee surgery. Doesn’t matter. Call the sans-Valentine team whatever you want. A top-25 ranked team, not even, whatever. The Spartans are still a good Big Ten opponent and the energy and defensive intensity Minnesota showed was notable. Unlike most games this season, those things were there at the start, and with the exception of a five-minute stretch in the second half, the Gophers carried the strong play throughout. This Minnesota team is never going to be a great offensive team because the Gophers can’t shoot, but the fundamentals were mostly there with effort, defense, rebounding (although the stats don’t say so) and just four turnovers. That’s about all that can be expected from this squad.
Lots of youngster intrigue. Both seniors Carlos Morris (seven points, one rebound) and Joey King (seven points, four rebounds, three assists) were mostly quiet on Saturday, but there’s a lot to like with Minnesota’s future. Freshman Jordan Murphy took control in the first half. It’s a fun exercise to step back and realize 14 points and nine rebounds is comparatively a BAD game for him. When he struggled in the second, freshman Kevin Dorsey went on the attack, getting results at the hoop and from the line as well as a big three at the end of the first half. Sophomore Bakary Konate, too, had some legitimately good post moves, shoving off an early ugly foul and finishing with six points on 3-for-4 shooting, two blocks, a steal and six rebounds – all in all one of his most efficient effective games.
Barn burner. I wasn’t sure what the crowd was going to be like, even for the Big Ten opener and the No. 1 team because the team has struggled so much early. But Williams Arena was absolutely rocking and played into the team’s energy, I thought. At one point, Murphy stared into the crowd and raised his arms up, encouraging the noise. When that place gets full, it is LOUD. Best environment of the year by a landslide. “The crowd actually gives us a lot of energy, believe it or not,” he said. “I know we have kind of a love-hate relationship with our crowd but they’re definitely a really big spark. Just seeing them clapping, getting excited gets us excited.”
Junior Charles Buggs out again. For the second time this season, the forward didn’t play a minute although he was available as coach Richard Pitino later noted. “I just kind of went with the guys that I thought would help us win,” he said regarding the absence of Buggs, who is averaging eight points and 4.2 rebounds. “I think with Charles he’ll continue to progress, continue to mentally and physically get better. He’ll still be able to help us certainly I just didn’t put him in today.” Buggs also didn’t play against Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, and Pitino gave similar reasons at the time while noting later that he was trying to send a message of sorts, which he didn’t elaborate on.
Izzo likes Murphy. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had plenty of kind words for the Minnesota freshman on Saturday, even after a bit of an “off” half. “Murphy is going to be a heck of a player,” Izzo said. “He’s got a Big Ten body, Big Ten toughness …he’s the real deal. Since he’s been playing, he’s just a rebounding machine. I’d like to steal him. I’m kidding! I’m kidding! I just mean I like that kind of player. He’s tough, he’s aggressive, he’s starting to shoot the ball better and he’s a rebounding nut.”
Izzo, per usual, also had to tease Star Tribune 95-year-old legend Sid Hartman a little. He stopped one reporter mid-question and pointed to Sid’s recorder, an old-school tape-deck deal. “My father was 90 years old and they had these when my father was a little guy,” he said. “I love you for it. And I’ve still got a flip phone so me and you are in the same boat, although I heard yours is one of those dial-to-talk ones.”
Izzo talked a little about dealing with the Monday passing of his father, Carl, as well after Valentine presented him with Saturday’s game ball in his memory. Izzo also said he spent some time with Ryan Saunders, son of late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders – Izzo’s good buddy – on Friday night after the team arrived. “He only got 60 years with his dad and I got 90 out of mine,” Izzo said of Ryan Saunders, whose dad passed in October. “Somehow, someway, if there’s been something good about flying everywhere it’s that I’ve had time to sit and think about the great things that I got to with my dad … it’s going to be a tough couple of days obviously but at the same time I feel lucky and blessed that I got to do things and spend time that a lot of people didn’t and I appreciate the things that people have said. We all go through it, we’re all going to go through it. The only one that’s probably not going to die is Sid. That guy survives everything.”
Pitino on Izzo: “I’ve got an amazing amount of respect for Tom Izzo. And that’s sincere. Sometimes you’re not sincere, I’m very sincere about this one. He’s a coaches coach. If I were to ever call him up and say ‘Coach, I’ve got a question about something, he would call you right back and he would give you his time. He’s got no ego, he just works his butt off …He’s a special guy. He’s somebody I look up to a lot with every part of it.”