It was a tale of two halves in last nights Minnesota Gophers vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers matchup in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip Off.
You know how whenever anybody criticizes the Big Ten they inevitably mention a "lack of athleticism" and how the players are "slow"? Generally I think, "hey, maybe Northwestern and Wisconsin and Iowa and some others, but this year's Gopher squad is their most athletic in years and can hang with anybody." Boy was I proven wrong, because Western Kentucky was far more athletic and far, far, far faster than Minnesota, and during the first half at times I thought we were doomed. Doomed like poor, stupid Dumbledore.
The Hilltoppers were getting out in transition, whether after a miss, turnover, or even a Gopher make it didn't matter, and beating the Gophers down the floor to get good shot after good shot. They were mostly threes, and they were mostly makes, and my tummy got queasy like that time I had buffalo wings with a side of chili for lunch.
Now, there were signs that the Gophers were probably the better team. WKU couldn't really do anything in the half court, turning it over more often than they scored (or at least it seemed like it). They couldn't do anything in the paint, because Ralph Sampson and Trevor Mbakwe (and Rodney Williams) basically had it closed off like an amish virgin's pantaloons, and conversely they had no way of stopping the Gopher big men on the block. Basically the Gophers seemed completely in control on both ends of the floor in the half court, but WKU's transition offense and sloppiness with the ball on Minnesota's part led to it just being a 6 point Gopher lead at half after an Al Nolen three at the buzzer, but it looked like either team could grab control at any point.
And grab control the Gophers did in the second half, starting out with a 12-2 run to start out the half, highlighted by yet another Sampson dunk, and never really looked back. It turns out you can negate a team's advantage in speed pretty quickly if you just score. And score, and score. The second half was essentially a lay-up/dunk line for the Gophers, who just pounded the ball inside, penetrated at will (like me with your sister), and essentially looked completely unstoppable leading to 63% shooting for the game. Taking away the Hilltoppers ability to run made them play in the half court where they were at a substantial disadvantage, and really led to the Gopher win.
Ralph Sampson (22 pts, 8 rebs, 7 blocks). The star of the game, as he usually is, Ralph realized early that WKU had nobody who could handle him inside and didn't bother with the perimeter foo-foo stuff. He attacked inside, early and often, showcasing that hook shot and being just an effective, efficient low-post scorer. A thing of beauty. And if that's not enough for you, he also controlled the paint on the defensive end with 7 blocks. Big Ten Player of the Year? Big Ten Player of the Year.
Rodney Williams( 17 pts, 7 rebs, 7-10 shooting). This was exactly the Rodney Williams who gets all the "lottery pick" talk. He hit threes and did his jumping and dunking thing, but more importantly he put the ball on the floor and got to the rim, he showed a nice mid-range game, and he played good defense and rebounded well. This is the first time I've really thought we weren't going to see Rodney all four years. Great game.
Trevor Mbakwe (18 pts, 10 rebs). He makes such a difference from last year. Just the prototypical power forward, very strong, very good rebounder, and great athlete. Controls the paint when he's in, and isn't afraid to mix it up and do some of the dirt work. He and Sampson are a great combo inside.
Blake Hoffarber (16 pts, 9 assists). It's pretty clear what he means to this team since Tubby played him 38 minutes (actually he played all the starters at least 32 minutes), and he once again showed why he has that trust. Guy is just a really solid, smart player who would be an absolutely outstanding point guard if he was a bit quicker. Or a lot quicker. But no matter. WKU is an athletic team, the kind of team that would have taken Blake completely out of the game even a year ago, and he ended up with a huge game. I don't know if it's his own improvement, a better team around him, or coaching, but Blake looks like the real team leader out there.
Al Nolen (12 pts, 3 assists). Hit two huge three-pointers in the first half, both from about 25 feet and both after being left wide open. He doesn't have to be an offensive force, but he does have to keep defenses honest, because if they have to cover him on the perimeter it makes it easier for him to get in the lane - and it did. He also had an absolutely sweet drive and dish to Mbakwe for a monster dunk. Seriously, there is very little as fun to watch as good Nolen. Too bad he's essentially a freakin' two-face.
Austin Hollins (3 pts, 3 rebs, 11 minutes). He's pretty clearly the sixth man, at least until Devoe gets back, and he should be. The most important thing for a freshman is to understand teh game and play smartly, and he's got that down, but he also brings an excellent jump shot, a good handle, and a quick first step. Love this kid.
Colt Iverson (4 pts, 8 minutes). Missed two layups in one possession at one point and dropped at least one pass, making it clear that he's pretty much always going to be a threat to be an offensive brick wall on any given night. Still, he's pretty good at taking up space.
Maurice Walker (1 reb, 5 minutes). Actually kind of looked disinterested in his 5 minutes last night. Also good at taking up space, but is less efficient than Colton and doing things like blocking shots and grabbing rebounds. I honestly still can't figure out what exactly we're going to get out of him this year. Could range from solid contributor to benchwarmer and it wouldn't surprise me.
Chip Armelin (3 pts, 5 minutes). Still love this guy, and he hit a big three in the first half. Still don't really trust him, and he had two turnovers in his five minutes. He reminds me so much of Rico Tucker it makes my pants tight.
Maverick Ahanmisi (2 minutes). I was pretty surprised to see him out there at all, actually. I'm just impressed that he didn't screw anything up
Really, an incredible offensive second half. Don't let the 18 point win fool you, this Hilltopper team is going to be very good and should blow right through this consolation bracket. Come tournament time this win will look very good on the Gophers' resume.
Speaking of resume building, I can't wait for tomorrow's game against North Carolina. Not only is it the highest profile opponent I remember the Gophers playing since Kentucky way back in the Final Four that never happened, but it's a team the Gophers could actually beat. John Henson and Tyler Zeller are big, but Ralph and Mbakwe are stronger - great matchup. How will Larry Drew handle Al Nolen's pressure? Will the Gophers be able to score in the half court against a solid UNC defense, and can they minimize turnovers? Nineteen tonight was way too many and if they do that again they won't beat the Heels. This is going to be fun. I have a feeling North Carolina will be a little tougher in the half court than WKU was, but I said the Gophers were the better team the other day and I pretty much have to stick with it.
Minnesota 75, North Carolina 71