Minnesota - 73
Michigan State - 78
In my call to steal one of three straight tough games, we are left with the road trip to Ohio State to accomplish this task.
The Gophers (read, Tubby Smith) have revitalized the Barn and re-energized a dormant fan base by playing competitive basketball against a couple of the best teams in the country. The team is playing significantly better than they were a year ago, but the fact remains that the talent isn't there to knock off the best of the Big Ten. Defensive pressure is great, shot selection is vastly improved and a couple freshman guards are infusing some life into the team. The team is talented enough and controlling effort enough to compete with anybody, but a top 25 team we are not.
What has become painfully clear over the last week is how poorly coached the current upper class men have been over their career. On key possessions, late in tight games, playing against a quality opponent they are just unable to make good decisions or execute when they have to. The current roster are freshmen and upper class men who are lacking in basketball awareness. Jim Souhan's column in today's Star Tribune says it best...
"If this team were a car, though, the seniors would have been the passenger seats, not the steering wheel or the engine."They just don't have the ability to exert their will in an appropriate manner on the floor. Dan Coleman is incredibly talented but when he needs to make a big basket he takes 14 ft fade away jump shots. Lawrence McKenzie can create shots for himself and his teammates but when the opponent goes on a little run he tries to stop it with an attempt from 24 ft. And Tollackson may be the smartest of the three, but he is the least talented. Unfortunately the things he can control (boxing out and free throws) seem to be beyond his grasp when needed most. Soph, Lawrence Westbrook, when called upon to take more minutes because of Nolen's injury he records a season high in turnovers.
The point is, these guys haven't been taught how to win and this will be most evident against quality teams. They are playing much better than most people anticipated, but lets not kid ourselves into thinking they are anything more than a bubble team.
Which brings me to another point. Let's not get too carried away with losing 2 games to two teams who will be high seeds in the NCAA's. After the Duel in the Desert everyone was down on this NIT (at best) team. Then a 2-1 conference start and a close loss at MSU had everyone talking about being squarely on The Bubble. Now, we are out of the conversation again. I've said it all year and I'll stick with it, we are going to be a bubble team. Losing to IU and MSU at home may have boosted our resume, it won't keep us out.
Game Ball - Drew Neitzel
5 three pointers in the 2nd half
The stats don't do justice what Neitzel's did the the Gophers on Sunday. Big shot after big shot kept Minnesota at arms length and they were never able to close the gap in the 2nd half.
Tempo Free Zone
The Gophers have been very good defensively this year, but this game was lost on the defensive end. Giving up 1.127 points per possession and allowing Michigan State to shoot 57.1 eFG% (49% actual FG%), doomed us. Rebounding was bad, but that has been typical and it was actually better than the trip to East Lansing. But we didn't force enough turnovers and we allowed them to shoot too high of a percentage.
This was an opportunity lost, but it isn't exactly a burden too great to bear.
The games that matter most are vs. the Ohio States, Purdues, Iowas (?) and Illinois' of the league. There is plenty of time left in the season and this team is still capable of winning 9 conference games. There is just very little room for error.
The team has the week to prepare for Ohio State on Saturday and that will be a big game. Here is what I see with the remaining schedule...
LOSSES (3) - Wisconsin, @Wisconsin, @Indiana
WINS (5) - @Northwestern, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Penn State
KEY GAMES (5) - @Ohio State, @Michigan, @Purdue, Ohio State, @Illinois
Those 5 toss ups are the key to the season. Win 3 of those and that gives you 10 Big Ten wins, which is probably enough to get into the Tourney with 22 wins. Win only 1 or 2 and it is the NIT for Tubby.
I enjoy looking ahead, but they have to play better if they want to win some of those key road games. The Gophers are playing at a level we haven't seen in several years but if they are disinterested or suffer any lingering affects from this little 0-2 homestand then the season will end sooner than we'd all like.