"Hoosiers": The Blog
Thursday’s 65-60 loss to Indiana at Williams Arena was incredibly entertaining in the most college basketball-ish way. It was hard to even get one’s mind around the insane intensity emanating from the home crowd, especially when it looked like the Gophers really could pull off an upset. It was that intoxicating, individuality-dissolving group mania can make sports so inspiring (also works great for nationalist politics) and must feel pretty oppressive and menacing for the visiting team. The crowd’s energy clearly spurred the two teams to play with incredible intensity of their own, although it also likely inspired the very ragged play that held forth for large stretches of the game.
Unlike their road loss against Michigan State, in which the U had to fight from behind the entire game just to make it close in the end, the Indiana game was theirs to lose. The Gophers led 56-52 with 6:50 remaining, capping off a 9-0 run with a gutsy left-handed layup and (right handed) free throw by Dan Coleman. And they went up 60-58 with 1:49 remaining after Al Nolen set up the cutting Spencer Tollackson with a gorgeous drive and dish. But then they failed to execute on each of the next four possessions. First, they botched a rotation after Indiana’s Jamarcus Ellis drove the lane, leaving Lance Stemmler open to hit a three. Then the Hoosiers pressured the Gophers into a wild shot as the shot-clock expired. Nolen compounded the problem by fouling Indiana’s freshman star Eric Gordon along the sideline, where Gordon was in no position to score. Gordon hit both free throws to go up 63-60 and, on the ensuing possession, Lawrence McKenzie missed a wide open three of his own. Indiana corralled the rebound with six seconds left and that, friends, was the game.
Pressure Feels Funny
I don’t usually go into game recap mode like that, but I did it to point out just how close to beating the ninth ranked team in the country the Gophers actually were. The big reason the Gophers were able to stay in the game against a more talented and athletic team was their passion and intensity on defense. Taking advantage of Indiana’s backcourt inexperience they forced Indiana into an astounding 26 turnovers with their full court press and frenetic half-court ball pressure. And they hounded Gordon, who came into the game averaging 23 points per game and was, by a large measure, the most talented player on the floor, into his worst game of the season. They allowed him only 12 points on eight shots and forced him to turn the ball over seven times.
Just as obviously, they also did lots of things not so well. They effectively negated their turnover advantage by being out-rebounded 42-26 (this is a problem that has plagued them, and will continue to plague them, I imagine, against good teams all year—besides Coleman, the Gophers three other regular forwards collected only seven rebounds between them.) Although their aggressiveness caused all of those turnovers and bad possessions, it also caused the Gophers to make some big mental errors on defense. When you put pressure on the ball and attempt to force turnovers on the strong side, your weakside defenders must be able to quickly rotate to open shooters if the other team beats this pressure. The Gophers did a poor job of this all night and it hurt them, not only on Stemmler’s late shot but also at the end of the first half when the Hoosiers’ Jordan Crawford went on a personal three-point shooting binge, helping Indiana to an 11 point halftime lead.
The Gophers also went through long stretches of poor offensive execution. For instance, they scored only four points in the nearly seven minutes of play after Coleman’s three point play put them up by four. I’ve praised Al Nolen’s poise and energy here before, and his defense was instrumental to the Gophers’ success, but this dry spell—including that crucial blown possession following Stemmler’s three—illustrated some of the freshman’s weaknesses as a point guard. Although Nolen is a fine ballhandler and is often able to work his way into the paint off the dribble, he is not yet much of a finisher. He doesn’t have a reliable pull-up jumper, which allows teams to pack the middle when he drives. This makes it difficult for him to score at the rim and also clogs up interior passing lanes. And Nolen doesn’t seem to yet have the vision and poise to find open shooters when in traffic—the result is often a forced pass or a reset at the top of the key. At the end of the game, when the Gophers needed their point guard to run the show and create good shots against a fierce defense, Nolen wasn’t up to the task.
Free Throws Are Neither "Free" Nor "Throws." Discuss
Despite all of this, they would have won the game if they had even been average from the free throw line. Instead, they were 11-21 and, well, you do the math. That’s like a whole team of Shaqs except without the constant dunking. I hate to pick on poor Spencer Tollackson—the dude was completely despondent after the game and referred to his own performance from the line as variously, “disgusting,” and “sickening” (I would add "grody"). But Spencer missed all seven of his free throws, including some big late ones. D'oh. And, unfortunately, his problems extended beyond the free throw line. Despite his size and strength, Tollackson is not much of a low post player. He was 6-10 on the night from the floor, but most of his makes were open dunks or layups off of cuts or pick and roll situations. Almost every time he tried to take Indiana’s long-armed D.J. White one-on-one it ended in a block or a bad miss. Just as he did against Northwestern, Tollackson struggled in man-to-man defense—late in the game, it looked as if Tubby was hiding him on the wing in the 2-3 zone—and he was repeatedly outmuscled for rebounds by White and the very large DeAndre Thomas.
But these shortcomings are only frustrating for Gophers’ fans, given how surprisingly likeable and good this Gopher team has been; they would be much less glaring if there weren’t such a fine margin between two heartbreaking losses and a 4-0 Big Ten record. I’m pretty sure that not many people, myself included, would have predicted before this season started that they would take two top twenty opponents down to the wire in a two week span. But that’s exactly what has happened—first against Michigan State and then against Indiana—and when you throw in last Saturday’s huge comeback victory at Penn State, the Gophers are emerging as, if not exactly a contender for the Big Ten title, then at least an extremely competitive, entertaining Big Ten team. And that’s a huge improvement.