Tonight We Dine in Hell
• For the second straight game, an opposing coach described a matchup with the Gophers as “strange.” This week it was Tom Izzo who, like Indiana’s Kelvin Sampson, was probably quietly wondering how a team without any consistent scorers was able to hang with his top ranked group. I find it a little strange myself, to tell you the truth. In the first half, though, the Gophers pretty thoroughly disrupted Michigan State’s offense, even without the injured Al Nolen, their best perimeter defender. But, by the second half, the Gophers’ tendency to aggressively overplay the ball, thereby leaving perimeter shooters open, again came back to haunt them. Without Nolen’s hounding defense, State’s star guard, Drew Neitzel, was repeatedly left open for threes. Neitzel buried five of the eight he took and eventually put the game out of reach.
• Nolen’s absence also hurt the Gophers on offense. I realize that just three days ago I criticized Nolen’s point guard skills, but things were even worse without him. Lawrence Westbrook ran the point with poise in limited action against Indiana, but he was a mess on Sunday, turning the ball over five times in the first half alone. The Gophers looked sloppy and out of synch no matter who ran the show and they went through long stretches of very poor execution, most crucially late in the second half when Michigan State began hitting their shots.
• I think after this I’ll stop picking on Spencer Tollackson because he seems like a decent guy and he takes losing really personally and he's just a kid and everything...but anyway one of of the Gophers biggest problems all year has been their inconsistency inside. Both Tollackson and Jonathan Williams were absolutely swallowed up by Michigan State’s interior defense, shooting a combined 6-16. Both players were able to make strong initial post moves but once they reached the traffic around the basket were habitually unable to finish or find open teammates. I’m pretty sure that this contributes to the Gophers’ spotty point guard play; when your big men are unable to score effectively or draw double teams, it puts inordinate pressure on your perimeter players to create offense.
• All of this is giving me a greater appreciation for the challenge Tubby faces in assembling lineups that can both score and defend. The Gophers are a weird mix of abilities and aptitudes. Aside from Coleman, who is a talented scorer, rebounder and defender, (although even he had a pretty poor game against the Spartans; he shot 4-14 and pulled in only three rebounds) they don’t really have a complete player. None of their standout defenders (Nolen, Westbrook, Damian Johnson) are particularly adept at putting the ball in the basket; their best pure shooters (Lawrence McKenzie and Blake Hoffarber) are undersized and a little soft defensively; I’ve already said enough about their big men. Thus, Tubby’s propensity to mix-and-match his lineups as he tries to find the exact right combination for every moment.
My sense is that, Coleman’s poor performance on Sunday notwithstanding, he should be the one player who transcends the coach’s platoon system. When Coleman is not on the floor, the Gophers clearly have even more difficulty scoring than normal; I particularly like him paired with Damian Johnson in the frontcourt. Johnson is a terrific shot blocker and, although he can’t score from beyond five feet, he is a hard-nosed finisher and creates opportunities for others with his passing. The Gophers seem more aggressive and fluid on both ends of the floor when the two play together, even without a true post presence.
• The biggest surprise of the afternoon was that Sid Hartman deigned to speak to me in the media room after the game. The olde don of Minneapolis sports journalism has certainly given me his share of cross looks but on Sunday he finally deemed it necessary to speak—and gently voice some much needed advice on my appearance. “We won’t let you in here again until you cut that hair,” he chimed. Sid is quite right: I have long hair. I’m just glad he didn't call me a pinko or tell me to get off his lawn.