The Great White North
The biggest surprise of the Gophers’ 88-56 victory over North Dakota State on Monday was the improved play of senior forward Dan Coleman. Coleman had been caught in the muck of a season-long 17-49 shooting slump (that’s, lets see here, 34.7%) that had visibly affected his confidence in the other phases of the game. Against NDSU, Coleman was galvanized, perhaps by matching up against much smaller and less athletic opponents, and played his best game by far. He made seven of his 13 shots, showed some nice one-on-one moves, grabbed eight rebounds and was active on defense. This is the kind of play that had made Coleman one of the Gophers’ best players last year and compelled him to briefly (and terribly unwisely) enter last year’s NBA draft. If the Gophers are to have any success in the Big Ten this year, Coleman needs to play like this every night.
(Did I say “the biggest surprise of the game”? The biggest surprise of the game was actually when I walked into the arena a few minutes before the tip off and discovered that every last NDSU player was certifiably white. I mean I know its North Dakota we’re talking about, but seriously. Every last player. Again: North Dakota State, an NCAA Division I men’s basketball team, is made up entirely of white dudes. And not even a single one of them was Detlef Schrempf. Should somebody let Wesley Snipes know about this?)
The Gophers began the game a bit tentatively and the Bison hung in with them for the first 15 minutes or so, even taking an 18-17 lead with 10:52 remaining in the first half. Eventually, though, the Gophers’ superior size, athleticism and depth took their toll and as the game wore on, they were able to sustain a level of energy that NDSU couldn’t match. The U went on a 21-4 run in the last eight minutes of the first half and were never really threatened again. After the game, many commented that the Gophers “wore down” the Bison, and it was true; Tubby made good use of his deep, ten-player rotation, making sure that the five players on the floor were always well rested.
No doubt, it was the U’s best defensive effort of the year. They played disciplined, enthusiastic D for most of the game and, especially in the second half, used their trapping man-to-man to create easy baskets in transition. The problem here is that when the two teams played with roughly even energy levels (the first five minutes of each half, for instance) they looked relatively well-matched; only when the Bison fatigued did the Gophers seem like the more skilled team. Its fine to rely on depth and athleticism to pull you through against North Dakota State, a team that has played at the Division I level for only three years. But this is not a strategy that will serve them well during the Big Ten season. No matter how much they hustle, to beat teams like Indiana and Michigan State the Gophers are going to have to be able to play a little too.
The Nolen Express
Since last week’s star (at least here at Balls!) Blake Hoffarber bricked his first four threes of the game, my new favorite Gopher is fellow freshman Al Nolen. Nolen played with incredible energy, aggressiveness and poise. He picked up five steals in only 23 minutes with good anticipation and quick hands, and played hard-nosed ball defense on Bison star Ben Woodside. Lawrence McKenzie has been the Gophers leading scorer this year but against NDSU Nolen was the more patient player, never forcing his offense and scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. That’s pretty good, Al Nolen.
The Pom-Pom Monologues
One of the great recommenders of the college game over the NBA is the difference in non-basketball entertainment. Not surprisingly, college arenas favor a more organic, pep-rally atmosphere over the NBA’s late-capitalist, dystopian Disneyland feel. And while you’ll learn much less about the status of postmodern Western media culture at a college game (I guess that’s what going to class is for) you’ll also probably enjoy the actual basketball game part more, what with the authentic emotion and non-scoreboard generated crowd noise. But, wow, the cheerleaders. Cheerleading may be one of those cultural artifacts whose utter ridiculousness we overlook because we are too habituated to it to notice. I realize this is not earth-shattering news. I’m aware that cheerleaders have already been picked on in enough movies and novels and rock songs, but I’m telling you, in person its way, way weirder than you think. The male cheerleaders are sort of like fratty surrogates for the actual athletes. They are jocky, well-muscled frat boys who pump their fists a lot and strut around like they just dunked on your sister or dissed Nas on their last single. All the while, though, their female counterparts mince like motorized, ballet-dancing standard poodles, wearing intensely short skirts and photoshopped smiles. And how do these guys and girls interact? Well, the fellas are literally lifting the girls over their heads where they remain in perfect, statuesque pose, manically smiling away and looking very, very much like human trophies. I’d say it’s a little too unsettlingly kabuki for a basketball game but as a performance of gender in contemporary culture its more terrifyingly on the money than anything Eve Ensler ever wrote.