In case you haven’t heard, the Big Ten is a little down this year (um, decade). I’ve heard lots of TV commentators attempt to counter this statement (usually by appealing to the quality of the conference’s coaches) but the tournament selection committee seems agree with the prevailing sentiment, as evidenced by the fact that only four teams were chosen for the 64-team field. Among the major conferences, only the ACC did as poorly and we saw what happened when the two leagues went head-to-head (in case you missed it, the ACC won almost every game). Even worse, the style of play that has taken hold in the Big Ten, a sludgy, defense and half-court approach, is pretty unpalatable. I really don’t know if this conservatism is a philosophic choice (some uncharitable reflection of dour midwesternism, maybe) or a response to the league’s general lack of talent, but, frankly, it’s a little depressing.
Now, this year’s conference tournament offered lots of what there is to love about college basketball: passion and intensity, huge upsets, incredible finishes. But it also featured a whole lot of what is not so great about the game: the absolute refusal to shoot until at least 30 seconds had elapsed off the shot clock; painfully bad shooting; ragged, inelegant play. If we forget about the last minute of the Minnesota-Indiana game and the fact that the 10th-seeded team scored a series of upsets to make the final, we have to face facts: the games themselves were not too great. (Anyway, neither of those are even the most remarkable college basketball thing that happened this weekend. After the Atlanta tornado damaged the Georgia Dome, Georgia, who finished the regular season 13-16, was forced to play twice on Saturday and then again on Sunday to win the SEC tournament. Dudes: they won four games in three days.) Of course, the end result was no surprise to anyone: Wisconsin smothered Illinois pretty easily with their “patient” (by that I mean slow, so slow) half-court offense, flawless rebounding and grinding defense. Every time I see them play I’m more impressed with how good they are and also how much I dislike them. Billy Packer put it well when describing Badger coach Bo Ryan’s recruiting philosophy. Ryan doesn’t necessarily look for the “best” players, said Packer. Instead he “looks for a player that fits his system and then trains them perfectly.” Really stirs the pulse, eh?
I Can't Quit You
As for our Gophers, this tournament was, in many ways, a microcosm of their strange season. Like many fans, I would imagine, I came into this year with pretty moderate expectations—it’s the first year of a rebuilding process, after all, and these things take time etc, etc. But, with their evident camaraderie, with their bursts of inspired play, these Gophers somehow managed to kind of worm their way into my heart. They always did just enough to engender some hope—and would next, of course, proceed to capitalize on that hope by playing appallingly badly.
Things did not begin auspiciously. Northwestern, as they sometimes do, gave the Gophers fits in the first half of their game on Thursday, leading by 16 at one point. The U managed to put together a 21-8 run to get back into the game and they eventually hung on to win, barely. Combine that inauspicious effort with the fact that the bar I where I was watching the game had almost all of their TVs tuned to CNN’s “Situation Room,” in which our good friend Wolf Blitzer and his pal Lou Dobbs glibly reduce incredibly important things to noxious little quotables, and the evening turned out to be pretty nerve-wracking.
I probably don’t need to remind you of what happened next. It’s important to remember, though, that the game itself was pretty ugly. As they did earlier this year, the Gophers stayed in the game by keeping things sloppy, pressuring Indiana’s young guards into mistakes. And, just as they did earlier this year, they found themselves in a position to win at the end and were unable to put the game away. Then came that ridiculous final minute. Two disclaimers here: 1) DJ White was a completely deserving winner of the Big Ten Player of the Year award this year; I’m pretty sure he’s my favorite player in the conference and I think he’ll be pretty decent in the NBA. 2) Remember that I have yet to complain about officiating even once this year. But: the Gophers got hosed. I know that three of their four big players were out of the game, due to injury and foul problems. And I know that DJ is pretty dang good. But there’s no way he should have been able to go over-the-top of a player with good position, tip the ball in, and also get fouled. It’s totally ridiculous. Anyway, that was, of course followed by one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in a basketball game. By that point I had lost all pretense of objectivity and was shrieking and cursing at the television and slapping my hands on the bar. Just couldn’t stop. I’ll beg you to watch it again a few more times. I’ve done it quite a bit and it makes me feel really good. The one thing I’ll call your attention to is Hoffarber’s catch. The guy is only 6’4” and he can’t really jump. It makes no sense that he could catch that ball while surrounded by three bigger, more athletic Hoosiers. It makes no sense.
And then the Gophers followed it all up by laying an absolute dud on Saturday, against a pretty mediocre Illinois team (who had, nevertheless beaten them twice before). That’s a little frustrating. Throughout the season, the Gophers have been hampered by three big problems: defending outside shooters, rebounding, and offensive inconsistency. After the first half of the Northwestern game, they seemed to have fixed the first two. They held Indiana to 1-14 from three and 32% overall (though they did foul up a storm), and none of their opponents managed to score 60 points. And, despite their foul trouble and Spencer Tollackson’s ankle injury, they managed to rebound competitively in all three games, thanks to good contributions from their guards.
That third thing is what killed them. Although a few Gophers have shown flashes of offensive creativity, Lawrence McKenzie is really the only one who can consistently create his own look and, because of his height, even he often has trouble finishing inside. This means that when they are not executing their offense well, or when the other team is applying good defensive pressure, the Gophers have an extremely hard time scoring in their half-court. It causes them to miss opportunities created by their defense and it causes the awful scoring droughts that they endured through significant portions of each of the three games. Illinois is not nearly as bad as their record would suggest but, still, the Gophers only scored 50 on 39% shooting. Did I mention how frustrating that was?
One Last Thing
As expected (predicted!), the Gophers are NIT bound. Thanks largely to that Indiana win, they get a 4 seed and home court advantage for at least the first game of the tournament, on Tuesday. They play the Maryland Terrapins (I give my word that I will make a "Terrapin Station" joke in my next post) who, like the Gophers, finished sixth in their conference and was beaten in their tournament by a much lower seeded opponent. Also like the Gophers, they’ve been fairly inconsistent, beating #1 North Carolina but losing to American University. I really have no idea how it will turn out. See you there.