First things first. South Dakota State has totally righteous uniforms. They’re wrestling-mat blue and made of that amazing, fireproof double-knit rayon I remember so vividly from Middle School basketball games. Best of all, their only ornamentation is the word ‘State’ written in block letters across the chest. They look like what you might find in a commercial for car insurance or adult diapers when the happy couple is really enjoying each other at a “college basketball game” (now that he has his life back).
Also: the U of M dance team took the floor at halftime to Bjork’s percussion-less, sonically dense, totally un-danceable jam, “Joga”. If you’re not familiar with the song, check it out online and then picture the dance team perkily prancing out to half-court in their spangled, rhythmic gymnastics-y costumes and then very, very slowly…sort of solemnly moving in some kind of abstract relationship to the music. Then picture lots of maroon and gold-clad Gopher fans—like the middle-aged guy behind me who yelled along with all of the student section chants, even the ones where they made fun of the kids who fouled out—looking confused.
This whole digression here will be important later, when I explain how the Gophers nearly lost to a team called the Jackrabbits who are 3-6 and recently lost by 30 to Oral Roberts. No it won’t.
Oh, Sweet Belief
Neither Tubby Smith nor SDSU coach Scott Nagy expressed the slightest bit of surprise at the Gophers’ 78-72 close call against the Jackrabbits, trotting out those priceless old “any given team on any given night” and “South Dakota State is a good basketball team” nuggets. Nagy, in particular, acted as if he expected his team to beat the heavily favored Gophers, who had, just the week before, completely dismantled North Dakota State, SDSU’s superior northern rival. Despite the closeness of the game—the Gophers were struggling to cling to a two point lead with just three minutes left—this was manifestly ridiculous. SDSU was un-athletic and small (no Jackrabbit over 6’8” saw playing time); both of their regular point guards were freshmen; they had difficulty executing their offense most of the night, even when they were scoring. The Gophers were much, much bigger, quicker and more talented. They shot 56.2% for the game, which will, I’m fairly sure, be a season high. And yet. Really, only two ugly throwaways by SDSU in the last 1:30 and two very large, late blocks by Damian Johnson (who, Dan Coleman’s 24 points notwithstanding, was probably the U’s best player, recording ten points, four blocks and six rebounds in only 19 minutes) prevented something pretty awful/amazing.
Couple all of these things with the fact that SDSU managed to score 72 points and you start get the impression that something went seriously wrong for the Gophers, defensively. Especially in the first half, Minnesota applied serious pressure both with their full-court press and half-court trap. SDSU looked totally overmatched against this pressure and had difficulty just running their offense and even getting the ball across half-court. Still, even at their most frantic, the Jacks rarely actually turned the ball over and, more amazingly, just kept finding open shooters late in the shot clock. Smith mentioned players “going for shot fakes, out of position, [making] mental mistakes on D,” and all of that stuff was true (popping into the air on pump-fakes by much smaller players was certainly a common theme.) The Gophers played aggressive defense, but repeatedly failed to rotate to open shooters after the ball was passed out of the pressure. They tried their trademark trapping man-to-man, as well as 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones, and no matter how frazzled SDSU seemed, nothing quite worked. The Jackrabbits just kept getting open looks.
Rebounding was an even more glaring problem. The Jackrabbits out-boarded the Gophers by a ridiculous 41-26 margin. Recall, again, that the Gophers had a height advantage at every position. Even more ridiculous, SDSU collected 19 offensive rebounds, while shooting 27-61 for the game. I have never been good at math but I think that means they rebounded more than half of their own misses. Not so good, Gophs. Its true that, especially in the second half when an upset seemed very possible, SDSU was playing incredibly hard and got a huge boost from the bench play of long armed 6’8” senior Mohammed Berte who played with serious intensity in collecting 11 boards. But if the Gophers can’t take the trouble to box out or at least try to match the rebounding effort of their opponent (in a home game, no less) they’re going to be in trouble all season.
Senior Skip Day
Dan Coleman has nicely broken out of an early season shooting slump and has begun to consistently lead the team in scoring, but the play of the Gophers’ other senior leaders, guard Lawrence McKenzie and center Spencer Tollackson, has been another story. Tollackson seems to be a serious liability when it comes to rebounding. He managed only three boards against CSU and just two against SDSU, really low numbers for a senior and the biggest player on the floor, even if he is, shall we say, not much of a leaper (hey, me neither but, y’know, I played hockey). The Gophers think they can live with his athletic shortcomings since he is a skilled offensive player. But he’s been pretty unassertive on that end as well. Tollackson has been shooting the ball efficiently, but he took only five shots (making four) in 25 minutes on Wednesday and eight shots in 30 minutes in the victory over Colorado State. Against SDSU he was effective when he actually got the ball but struggled to get position in the low post, even against a smaller opponent (which also likely contributes to his rebounding problem).
McKenzie, too, has been absent lately. He made only one of his five shots against Colorado St., and was only 2-6 on Wednesday (although he did collect six assists.) He was especially lacking in comparison with his counterpart, Jackrabbits guard Garrett Callahan, who looks like a skinny tenth grader but absolutely murdered the Gophers with 28 points on 11-18 shooting. While Callahan played with some real passion, digging in on defense and manically attacking the Gophers nearly every time he touched the ball, McKenzie just looked tentative. The Gophers have been lucky to get good minutes from their young players, but if they want to do anything this year, they’ll need Tollackson and McKenzie to be much more aggressive.