Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gopher women 65 North Dakota State 37

I thought I should go see the Gopher women before I shoot off my mouth about them again, and so I did that.

But I was also prepared to lament North Dakota State's struggles, and so I'm going to do that, too. The Bison won 5 NCAA titles back in the day, and were runners-up 3 other times. Stewartville, MN, native and NDSU grad Kasey Morlock turned up a couple years ago among the NCAA's official all-time Division 2 all-stars. Coach Amy Ruley won 671 games in 29 seasons. As recently as 2007, the Bison soundly beat the Gophers, 62-48, at Williams Arena. And, just to prove it wasn't a fluke, they stayed within 68-65 of Minnesota the following year, also at the Barn.

All of that had to be a lot of fun. And, now? Well, how much fun can it be, really, being just another D1 mid-major Cinderella-wannabe in a cold Vermillion? Certainly the Bison didn't have much fun last night, getting off just 35 field goal attempts while committing precisely as many turnovers, 19 of them on Gopher steals. On the offensive end, at least, they spent most of the night struggling just to connect on a few passes and to maintain possession of the ball, even out beyond the three-point arc, sometimes even in the backcourt.

On defense, they too often found Gophers between them and the basket they were supposed to defend, especially when the Gophers were able to get into transition. The result was a lot of reaching, resulting in 24 personal fouls and 3 Bison fouling out. The Gophers showed their usual weakness, making just 29 percent of their own field goal attempts. When was the last time a team, any team at any level, shot 29 percent and won by more than 25 points? But Minnesota did just that in part with their defense, but also by getting to the free throw line for 36 attempts, and by making 27 of them.

The Bison, in a word: Slow. In 3 more words: Lack ball-handling skills. The Gophers, with a couple exceptions I'll mention below, aren't quick, either, and yet they easily out-quicked NDSU.

Both teams started slowly. It was still 0-0 at 16:14, when Ashley Ellis-Milan hit 2 free throws for the Gophers. NDSU never led. Twelve minutes later it was 23-8 when the Bison mounted their first run of the night, getting within 26-21 late in the first half. The Gophers pulled away again to a 10-point lead at 33-23 early in the second half when NDSU hit back-to-back threes to get within 33-29. From there it was all Minnesota as an 18-0 run made it 51-29 at 8:23. The final score was the largest margin of the night.

China Antoine kicked off the big run with a 3 off of an offensive rebound and assist by AEM. She followed that with 3 steals in under a minute-and-a-half, and then hit another 3 at 9:45. I was wrong about Antoine, thinking she was another Kay Sylva. No, she has the best combination of skills and instincts of anybody on the Gophers' roster. At 5-foot-3, that isn't always going to get it done, but she can play. She finished with 9 points and 4 steals, making 3-of-5 shots from long-range. She's got to learn not to take the ball to the rim, however. She was 0-for-5 on 2 pointers.

I wasn't wrong about Leah Cotton, because I hadn't said anything about her. But I'm surprised. She's quick, she has good basketball instincts and, most importantly, she gets to the rim and creates her own shot better than any Gopher since Lindsay Whalen. As a result, she shot 10 free throws, making 9 of them en route to scoring a team-high 15 points. I am also surprised at her size. From the second deck, she doesn't look much bigger than Antoine. She's listed at 5-8 but I don't think so.

Zoe Harper had a great game with 8 points, 9 boards and 3 steals in just 16 minutes. She uses her body effectively to create space in the paint. Brittany McCoy helped Antoine, Cotton and Kiara Buford to harass the Bison guards, and matched Antoine's 4 steals. Ellis-Milan made just 2-of-10 shots but had a team-high 3 assists, and she plays hard. Brianna Mastey contributed 3 points, 4 boards and a team-high 2 blocks. It was great to see Kristen Dockery come into the game, too. She's got a great athletic-looking body, and she responded with an assist, a turnover and a steal in just 2 minutes of play.

Katie Ohm's shooting slump continued, however. She was 0-for-3 from the field, all 3s, and even missed both of her free throw attempts. And, when she's not scoring, she's not contributing. She doesn't play a lot of defense and was exposed last night as a poor passer. It's not so much that she throws the ball away, it's the failure to see and to deliver passes to open players that is a much bigger issue. B. Mastey still looks a little bit lost out there, and Katie Loberg, too.

Bottom line: I don't care if the Gophers shot 50 percent and scored 90 points per game in the Subway Classic (2 games). With their history, I'm afraid that the team that shot 29 percent against the Bison last night is the real Gophers. When you shoot like that, good shot selection becomes key and the Gophers don't show that either. They threw up too many 3s that had no chance of going in and, on too many 2 point shots, getting fouled was the only way the Gophers were going to score. NDSU cooperated. Other teams won't. And, Antoine and Cotton showed particularly poor shot judgment. Sometimes you just say, hey, they're scorers. In the context of this team, it could be a problem.

Still, forgetting the Ws and the Ls, Antoine and Cotton will make this year's Gophers more watchable than they've been since, well, you-know-who. In 2010-2011 they'll be your starting guards and, with a year of seasoning, they could be the best guard tandem the Gophers have had since Whalen and whomever. Pretty high praise for a couple of players who were widely regarded as marginal recruits.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Utah 60 Gopher women 59 (November 17)

I suppose the Gopher women should be congratulated for staying within 1 of a quality opponent on the road. The Gophers had 8 fewer TO than Utah and, as a result, got off 10 more FGA than Utah did. McCoy, Ellis-Milan and Antoine shot 13-for-24. Antoine, the in-coming transfer, showed that she can play at this level, scoring 10 points with a couple of steals. Ellis-Milan led with 9 rebounds and McCoy with 4 assists.

Thats the good news.

The bad news is that aside from McCoy, Antoine and AEM, the rest of the Gophers shot 7-for-38 (18 percent). Jackie Voigt shot 3-of-14 including 2-of-10 3s. The Gophers led 24-20 at 2:50 of the 1st half but were out-scored 8-2 the rest of the half and 13-6 to start the second to fall behind 41-32, their largest deficit. They never led after 24-22.

After that the Gophers had the ball and an opportunity to tie 5 times, but went 0-for-5 in converting those opportunities. The Gophers trailed 43-40 at 9:15 when Voigt missed a 3. At 8:54, 21 seconds later, still trailing 43-40, Voigt missed another 3. After falling behind by 7 at 50-43 and 52-45, the Gophers scrambled back within 54-52 when, at 2:30, McCoy was called for an offensive foul. Trailing 55-52 at 1:57, Voigt missed (you guessed it) a 3. Finally, trailing 58-56 at 0:20, Voigt turned it over. The final was not as close as it sounds as the Gophers hit a 3 at 0:03 to get within 60-59.

Ohm and Harper, who along with McCoy and AEM, represent the senior class, shot 1 for 9. Ohm's 1-for-6 probably explains why Voigt took all of those 3s. And sophomore Kiara Buford, who led the Gophers in the 1st half with 9 points, failed to score in the 2nd. The Gophers finished shooting 32 percent and had assists on 9 of 20 buckets (Utah had assists on 12 of 21).

Tonight, at least, the essential character of this Gopher team would seem to be pretty similar to that of recent years. Again, I suppose a 1 point loss on the road to a good opponent could be taken as a sign of encouragement, but given the that the Gophers' problems are the same ones that have sabotaged other recent seasons, I am not encouraged.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

2009-2010 Season Preview

It seems like only yesterday that the Mankato State women won the NCAA D2 national title, Tayler Hill became the most prolific scorer in Minnesota high school history, and--count 'em--three boys teams won state high school championships with undefeated records.

But Hill now wears an Ohio State uniform, and has already scored 28 points in her first two games as a Buckeye. Two of Minnesota's top boys' players, Royce White and Rod Williams, have moved on to Minnesota. White is not currently playing due to legal difficulties, however, while Williams is wowing the Gopher faithful with 31 points and tremendous leaping ability through three games. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves' will be rebuilding without the help of long-time executive Kevin McHale; and the Gopher women will be without #7 all-time scorer Emily Fox.

Change is in the air, and why not? In about six weeks, we'll be entering into a new decade of Minnesota basketball, and we can only hope it has the excitement of the decade of 2000-2009.

Tubby's Turn?

Hope, of course, springs eternal, and the focus of that hope for Minnesota basketball fans, initially at least, is the #18 rated Gopher men under coach Tubby Smith. Now in his third year at the U, Tubby has assembled a deep, deep roster--even with three players, including White, on suspension as the season gets underway. Not only that but most of this troops now have had at least a year's experience in Tubby's system. Last year, as the season wore on, it was increasingly a case of "as goes Lawrence Westbrook, so go the Gophers." This coming year, more of Tubby's troops should be ready to step up when match-ups call for it: Not just returning starters Damian Johnson, Al Nolen and Ralph Sampson III, but also sophomore Devoe Joseph and the freshman Williams seem ready to do so.

In short, Tubby, his players and Gopher faithful all see the Maroon and Gold as a team that should still be standing and making some noise come March. A Big Ten title or a Final Four is probably too much to ask, but this should easily be the best Gopher team since that that bittersweet season of 1996-97. It says here the U goes 20-10 in the regular season, 11-7 in the Big Ten, and wins a couple in the Big Ten tournament. That adds up to a #6 seed and a couple more wins in the Big Dance.

The Lottery Life

On the other end of the spectrum, the only question for the Timberwolves is how bad? It will be bad, but how bad? Right now the Wolves are 1-10 with a ten game losing streak and no relief in sight. Al Jefferson's knee isn't 100 percent. And, the point guard the Wolves didn't pick in the draft, Brandon Jennings, has already had a 55-point night for the Bucks, while Jonny Flynn is overmatched every night and Ricky Rubio stayed in Italy rather than play for this team.

One almost expects to look courtside and see Jimmy Rodgers calling the shots. It says here that the Wolves will be lucky to win the 15 games that Rodgers' crew won in 1991-92. They'll have another crack at the NBA's draft lottery come next spring, but the fact is that evaluating and drafting the best available talent has never been the Wolves' forte, either.

Up for Grabs

With the exception of the Mpls. South girls, all of the 2009 state high school champions were predominantly senior teams. Three South starters return, the most of any of the eight champions, but Tayler Hill is not among them. So all of the 2010 titles would seem to be very much for grabs.

Still, it says here that the Hopkins, Benilde-St. Margaret's and Ellsworth boys, who combined for seven state titles in eleven state finals appearances during the decade of the '00s, will emerge next March as state champions. They'll be pushed by Henry Sibley, Minnetonka, Tartan; St. Paul Johnson, New Prague; and Minnesota Transitions, among others. In AA, Crosby-Ironton, New London-Spicer and Plainview-Elgin-Millville will contend. Kevin Noreen of Transitions and Cole Olstad of Plainview-E-M would seem to be the best bets for Mr. Basketball honors.

Among the girls, Lakeville North and Barnum are the favorites among the largest and smallest schools. In between, two Mpls. schools, North and Roosevelt, looked last spring like the prohibitive favorites. But several North players transferred out, and Roosevelt point guard Shakila Boler hurt her knee for a second time. If Boler can play, Roosevelt can contend. If not, New London-Spicer becomes the favorite. In AAA, DeLaSalle, Worthington and Benilde-St. Margaret's now look stronger than North. Gopher recruit Sari Noga of Parkers Prairie has the look of a Ms. Basketball.

The More Things Change....

Among the small colleges, the perennial powers are poised to remain perennial. In the D2 Northern Sun Conference, defending men's tournament champions St. Cloud State are favored in the annual coach's poll, while two-time national champ (2006 and 2008) Winona State was picked as the runner-up. Defending national champion Mankato State is favored to repeat as the women's champion.

In the D3 MIAC, the coaches picked St. Thomas to win both the men's and women's championships despite the fact that, for the first time in 95 years, the Tommies will play their home games off-campus. The Schoenecker Arena has been demolished to make way for a new athletic facility, so the Tommies will play at Gangelhoff Arena, home of D2 Concordia (St. Paul). All-America shooting guard Joe Scott leads the Tommie men, while 6-2 transfer Rachel Booth, who scored 12 ppg last year at D2 St. Cloud State, should be a dominant presence in D3.

Still, the St. Cloud men would seem to have the best opportunity to make some noise next March.

Treading Water

Finally, the Gopher women continue to search for the magic that surrounded the program earlier in the decade, but has eluded them since Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville departed for the WNBA. Now it is the sophomore class of Kiara Buford, Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt--rather than the seniors, Ashley Ellis-Milan, Brittany McCoy and Katie Ohm--who inspire hope. Third place in the Big Ten, as predicted for them in the coaches' pre-season poll, seems generous. The Gopher women have been notable in recent years for their inability to get any easy baskets in transition, and so they've had to grind it out. The result has been a series of infamous offensive meltdowns in key games.

Still, Buford has scored 20 ppg in the first three games, including exhibitions. If she can consistently get out in transition, the Gophers could surprise. But that seems a lot to ask of one skinny sophomore. And so, 9-9 (in the Big Ten) and 15-14 (overall) could be more like it.

Most Likely to Succeed

Most likely to be making noise next March:

1. Gopher men
2. Barnum girls
3. St. Cloud State men
4. St. Thomas men and women
5. Ellsworth boys

Coaches of the Year:

1. Tubby Smith, Minnesota
2. Kevin Schlagel, St. Cloud State men
3. Steve Fritz and Ruth Sinn, St. Thomas
4. Mike Dreier, New London-Spicer girl
5. Kenny Novak and Brian Cosgriff, Hopkins boys and girls

Players of the Year:

1. Rachel Booth and Joe Scott, St. Thomas
2. Sari Noga, Parkers Prairie
3. Kiara Buford, Minnesota
4. Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota
5. Kevin Noreen, MN Transitions, and Cole Olstad, Plainview-E-M

Games of the Year:

1. Ohio State (January 9), Michigan State (January 23) and Purdue (February 24) at Minnesota men

2. State high school championship Saturday, girls and boys, March 20 and 27, respectively

3. St. Ben's vs. St. Thomas women (at St. Ben's January 16; at St. Thomas February 16)

4. St. Cloud State men vs. Winona State (at St. Cloud December 4, at Winona February 27)

5. Ohio State and Tayler Hill at Minnesota Gopher women February 14