Well, the Gophers’ season came to a rather depressing end on Tuesday night, with a 68-58 loss to Maryland, in the first round of the NIT. The game was basically even save for the second half’s dreadful four opening minutes. In that stretch, the Terrapins took advantage of a discombobulated Gophers’ squad, fast-breaking and dunking their way to a 12-2 run. The Gophers had already been struggling on offense, failing to break 60 points or shoot better than 40% in their previous five games. This situation was not helped, to put it mildly, by the loss of their best scorer and only true one-on-one threat, Lawrence McKenzie, who injured his foot in practice. The team made some open shots early in the game in jumping to a 16-10 lead but, for the most part, they had an impossible time getting good looks.
It wasn’t that they were passive or failed to execute their offense—they only turned it over 14 times—or that Maryland was all that overwhelming defensively, though the athletic Terrapins did a fine job fighting over screens, rotating and contesting shots. It was just that with McKenzie out, Spencer Tollackson hobbling, and Dan Coleman customarily meek (that poor dude; in the final game of a star-crossed career that, at one point, included NBA aspirations, he went 0-4, dislocated his pinkie and fouled out with no points—that makes me feel awful), they simply didn’t have anybody who could make tough shots or get to the line (they shot only 31.3% from the floor and took only nine free throws; they couldn’t do anything, basically). Lawrence Westbrook did his best to fill the void, aggressively using his quickness and handle to break down the defense. But although the 6 foot Westbrook is a good scorer in the open court, he has a hard time finishing or making good decisions in traffic. To make matters worse, he has a poor midrange game, which allows team to clog the lane when he drives. Maryland did a good job of this and the end result was usually a flailing layup, a desperate pass or a missed 12-footer. It was incredibly frustrating, as have been all of their recent games, because the Gophers gave tremendous effort and got some good stops on defense but just couldn’t ever close the gap.
Aside from their painful scoring droughts, the team’s biggest problem was inside. With the aforementioned injuries (I think Jonathan Williams, their other big man, got banged up in there somewhere, too), they had a pretty rough time matching up with Maryland’s tough, athletic forwards, James Gist and Bambale Osby, and protecting the basket when the Terps’ guards got into the lane. This is largely the cause of the huge foul disparity between the teams (a 23-12 disparity that incited one of the great Bronx cheers, led vehemently by Tubby himself, I’ve ever witnessed). Given that he was often the lone Gopher over 6’5”, Damian Johnson’s performance was even more amazing. Johnson isn’t really a natural scorer (to put it mildly) but has been the Gophers’ best player over the past week, even finding a way, largely due to pure effort, to contribute some points. The Maryland loss might have been the best game of his career. Check this heavy stat line: 6-11 for 14 points, 12 rebounds (half of them offensive), four blocks, four steals. I hope you watched this game just for the sight of Johnson fighting two or three taller Terps for offensive rebounds; blocking three pointers (I haven’t kept track, but he’s gotten one in almost every game I’ve seen—when was the last time you saw any other non-high schooler do this, even once? I realize he’s got “longish” arms but, seriously!) basically single-handedly keeping the U in the game. Dude was straight busting his ass. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
It seems like I should probably do some summing up. Despite the disappointment of the past few days, despite the heartbreaking near misses and the bad losses, I think it’s obvious that the Gophers made huge progress. A year ago, after all, a 20-win season would have seemed unthinkable, as would have even being competitive with the best teams in the conference. It’s a good start; and next year brings more reason to hope: improvement in Al Nolen's point guard skills to accompany his nasty defense, a more well-rounded Blake Hoffarber, junior-college transfers and high school recruits coming in to shore up the team’s backcourt scoring and frontcourt size. But even more—and I got a sense of this in the baffled way he talked about his teams inconsistency and their strange lapses in competitive fire—I think Tubby is impatient to replace the players who were part of the U’s long, slow slide. All year, you could see him scrambling for every matchup advantage, every shred of momentum—he definitely succumbed to the tendency to overcoach and micro-manage, to take the game out of the players’ hands.
Although that is one of the least appealing aspects of college basketball, in a way I can’t blame him. It’s not so much that he had to overcompensate for poor talent, although the Gophers were definitely less deep then your average Big Ten squad. It’s more that he seemed to know that many of them had been too well trained over the past few years in a culture of low expectations, in which effort and hope only ever served to forestall disaster. You could see it in Dan Coleman’s faraway eyes, Spencer Tollackson’s demonstrative self-admonishments, even in McKenzie’s frustrated attempts at vocal leadership; these guys had been disappointed one too many times. Aside from the few moments when McKenzie found his shot, flashed that gleeful grin and bounced down the court like the natural scorer he is, I never got the sense that they were ever really playing. As in, like, youthful abandon, performing freedom, having fun.