Thursday, September 9, 2010

Gopher Men Sweep 3 in Western Canada

I didn't see coach Tubby Smith's Gophers sweep 3 games in western Canada last week. But, two-and-a-half games through, one had to feel a little bit underwhelmed. The University of British Columbia was the first victim, 80-62, while Trinity Western went down a little harder, 80-68, and the Gophers led Victoria 42-40 in the third.

Is it just me, or are those scores a little too close for comfort?

But, honestly, we have no idea how tough of opponents they really were. Trinity was described on the Gophers' Web site as "tough" and "physical," while Victoria was said to have come out "with fire" and to have taken advantage of the Gophers playing their 3rd game in 4 days.

Just looking at the box scores, it is hard to argue that the Gophers played well. Well, they shot well enough--40 percent against UBC, then 45 and then 55 against Victoria. From 3-point land it was a solid 43 percent, then a less solid 32 and and an extremely solid 48. From the charity stripe it was a worrisome 60 and 60 percent in the 1st 2 contests, before improving to 80 percent in the 3rd.

And the Gophers won the possession game against their toughest opponent, Trinity. But overall the Gophers' turnovers and opponents offensive boards represented glaring weaknesses. Tubby's kids gathered in 50 offensive boards but gave up 45. And Minnesota had 67 turnovers in the 3 games, while forcing 62. So it sounds like these were pretty helter-skelter affairs, not a style that is likely to produce the desired results in the Big 10 (12?).

So, as a team, there's a long way to go. And, individually, well, the main question was how much the newcomers can contribute in support of what should be a pretty solid but skinny nucleus. The answer for the moment is, well, maybe more than I anticipated.

I've expressed skepticism about the highly-touted Trevor Mbakwe, for example, but he appears to have contributed well to the 3 Canadian victories with 11 points and 7 rebounds per game, and he led the team in blocks twice and steals once. All in just 60 minutes of play, or 20 minutes per game.

The distribution of minutes across the roster was a bit surprising, by the way, as returning regular "bigs" Colt Iverson and Ralph Sampson played a total of just 80 minutes between them. Of course, Sampson sat out the 2nd game for undisclosed reasons.

Here's the distribution of minutes:

Blake Hoffarber 3 starts/82 minutes
Rod Williams 3 starts/75 minutes
Devoe Joseph 64 minutes off the bench
Mbakwe 1 start, 3 games/60 minutes
Al Nolen 3 starts/59 minutes
Maurice Walker 55 minutes off the bench
Iverson 3 starts/47 minutes
Austin Hollins 46 minutes off the bench
Maverick Ahanmisi 36 minutes off the bench
Elliott Eliason 35 minutes off the bench
Sampson 2 starts, 2 games/33 minutes
Dominique Dawson 1 game/8 minutes

The surprises here include Nolan and Joseph. I hadn't heard that Nolan has regained his eligibility, but apparently that's the case, and he's starting ahead of Joseph. But at crunch time (Minnesota 64 Trinity 62 with 5 minutes to play), Joseph was on the court. He ended up with 5 more minutes of playing time than Nolan and, oh, yeah, he led the Gophers in scoring in all 3 games with 18, 15 and 19.

The other surprise may turn out to be Maurice (Mo) Walker, who played 55 minutes, scoring 8 points per game and leading the Gophers in rebounding in each of the 1st 2 games with 10 and 10.

In short, if this western swing is a reliable indication, there are a couple of things we know about Tubby's crew:

1. The rotations are already set, and Joseph, Mbakwe and Walker will be the main bench contributors.

2. This is an adequate shooting team except from the charity stripe, where it has the potential to be scary bad.

And some things we don't know:

1. Can they hang on to the ball?

2. Can they keep the opposition off the offensive glass? Can they keep them from scoring?

3. Are Mbakwe and Walker for real?

If they answers to these questions are no, they're a .500 team. If the answers are yes, yes, yes and yes, they can be better than that but, still, not Big 10 title or Sweet 16 contenders. Sorry.

Still, it should be noted that from 42-40 at halftime, the Gophers proceeded to shoot 60 percent in the 2nd half against Victoria en route to a 101-67 win. So the trip ended on a high note, and I'm willing to say that I'm a little more optimistic than I was before the Gophers departed for the big west.

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