Devoe Joseph must evolve to lead Gophers into March Madness
With T-Wolves fans forced to accept "progress" as a form of positivity and Wild faithful enjoying a stellar home record but likely to enter the Olympic break as playoff outsiders, the oft-lamented Gopher hoops bunch still may offer the T.C.'s best crack at some major sport, second-season love.
But to feel that warmth, I'm of the opinion that the needed push will come via a cool, Canadian hand.
With the loss of guard Al Nolen for the season due to academic issues, the Gophers (14-8, 5-5) will need evolved play from sophomore Devoe Joseph to make a legitimate run at a March Madness birth. Nolen was among the nation's premier perimeter defenders and concluded his abbreviated season leading the Big Ten in steals ranked first in steals (2.4 per) and third in assists (4.6). Moreover, his stellar assist-to-turnover ratio (3/1) ranked second in the Conference.
Joseph has made four-consecutive starts in Nolen's stead, offering mixed results in his commencement to the Gophers' three-guard lineup. In the first of those four, Joseph presented a hot line of 16 points to go with 7 assists (and just one turnover) versus Big Ten-leader Michigan State. But the three starts since have been measured at best, with the Canadian import sporting just 14 combined points (on 5-for-19 shooting) combined with 10 assists and 10 turnovers.
There's no questioning Joseph's talent, just as there's continued evidence that said talent remains of the Raw variety. His Valentine's Day performance of last year against Penn St. when dude went 7-for-8 from 3-land and scored a freaky 23 points in 22 minutes showed the love we could have for this kid; inversely, that afore-noted 26 percent clip from Joseph's last three prove that the sophomore can still break our hearts. Senior guard Lawrence Westbrook may indeed be able to convey some scoring savvy to his younger back court mate, but the ability to run a poised half-court offense in the guard-tough Big Ten rests largely on the advancement of Joseph's luring curve. Like last season, Westbrook again leads the Gophers in scoring -- but Joseph best not take many ball-handling tips from his elder. Westbrook's 1/1.1 assist-to-turnover ratio (.91) ranks a poor 48th in the Big Ten, and that number is (sadly) up from his junior season mark of 1.4/2.1 (.68).
To date, Joseph is fifth in scoring for the Gophers, at 8.3 per. His 2.8 assist are second on the team, while his own assist-to-turnover mark of 1.7/1 is 19th in the Big Ten.
The Gophers' Saturday victory over Big Ten-winless Penn St. may prove a sound beginning for a fortuitous Minnesota run. On Thursday, the G-Men host Michigan (11-12, 4-7) before traveling to Northwestern (16-7, 5-6) on Sunday. The Gophers beat Northwestern 65-61 at home back on January 26th. Wins in those two would get Tubby and crew a few clicks closer to the "20" mark likely needed for an invite to the NCAA's. In addition, they would set the Gophers up nicely for a huge Williams Arena showdown next Thursday the 18th versus #11 Wisconsin. While the G-Men offer solid seasonal wins over Butler and Ohio St., they are no doubt in need of another signature victory on the resume. With just eight Big Ten games remaining, the only other showdown with a top-25 prior to the Conference Tournament is at home against #6 Purdue on the 24th of February.
Even despite the loss of Nolen and the well-publicized plights of Trevor Mbakwe and Royce White, the Gophers remain in earnest contention to achieve some March in a season that has namely been filled with Madness. For a bunch that began the year ranked an under-appreciated 25th in the country considering its full cache of talent, I'm looking at Joseph to be the X-factor that gives the Gophers the extra pump they'll need, should they realize this season as something beyond a wasted, NIT campaign.
The kid has shown that he can heat up. Now he just needs to negate the cool spells with more consistent scoring, apt distribution to Westbrook, Damian Johnson, Ralph Sampson III and Blake Hoffarber, and some learned defensive lessons from the now-necktied Nolen.