Who knew that putting a 6-11 guy, a 6-10, and a 6-9 behemoth, none of whom possess ball-handling skills that would rank higher than "6th grade" would result in Globetrotter ball breaking out? Ralph Sampson, Colt Iverson, and Trevor Mbakwe started last night's game together and were in almost the entire time, spending much of it displaying interior passing that surpassed the realm of shocking and went straight into mind-boggling. Did you know Colt Iverson could pull off a deft touch-pass leading to a Mbakwe dunk? No you didn't, liar.
Combine the size of those giants (along with a 6-7 Rodney Williams playing shooting guard) with a Northwestern front-line that ranged from "slight and frail as a 12-year old girl with a skinned knee" to "mobile as an oak tree" and it's easy to see why the Gophers dominated the game. They were layuping and dunking all over people's heads, leading to 53% shooting on a night they went 2-11 from three (the bigs were 15-24), while on the other end the Wildcats (more like Mildcats, am I right?) treated the area inside the three point line as if it were poison, chucking up 39 three-point attempts (61% of their shots) from behind the arc. Despite getting cracked in the chin, John Shurna was the only player who seemed to try to penetrate at all, and on a night when the shots weren't falling (just 12 threes went in), it wasn't too difficult to shut them down.
Their switch to that dreaded 1-3-1 seemed to confuse the Gophers for a time, something it's done to no other team this year, letting Northwestern creep back and actually grab the lead at the half, but credit Tubby for fixing that issue in half #2. Getting the ball to Sampson at the top of the key, where he essentially posted up, allowed him to turn and see who had the advantage on their man out of Mbakwe and Iverson, and get them the ball. Credit Ralph, because as soft as he is on the interior at times, he is a good enough passer that they can get away with playing him at the 3 in these situations.
Blake passed his first test as the team's new point guard, and really surprised me by still being able to score and get shots. The freshman back-ups were used sparingly, but were effective enough at not screwing up to help get Blake the ball, and Rodney Williams played one of his better games as a Gopher, I thought. He wasn't flashy, outside of that monster dunk that was #2 on Sportscenter's plays of the night, but he was very effective. Although he had just four points, he chipped in 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks with just 2 turnovers (44 fantasy points) despite handling the ball more than usual. I was impressed.
So the Gophers passed their first test post-Nolen, but a far bigger challenge awaits this weekend, traveling to West Lafayette to take on #12 Purdue. I previewed the Boilers just a couple weeks ago, so you can read that here, but specific to this matchup I have a few quick questions:
1) Who the hell is going to guard Lewis Jackson? Seriously, I need to know. Blake can't. Rodney probably could, but then who guards E'Twaun Moore? Maverick can't. Hollins? Armelin? Go zone? All I know is that even Al Nolen had a hell of a time keeping Jackson out of the lane (remember, Al's biggest successes when Jackson drove were either blocking his shot or stripping him of the ball, not keeping him out of the lane), so I don't have a clue how they're going to stop him from penetrating. It'll be like a date with your sister.
2) Will that 3-big lineup work again? On offense, yes. Purdue isn't inept on the interior, but outside of JaJuan Johnson (and that's a big "outside of" by the way), their two other size guys (Patrick Bade and Travis Carroll) don't exactly make big contributions (combined average of under 18 minutes per game). Defensively, however, I'm not sure how it's going to work. Hoffarber and Iverson will be liabilities, but Purdue isn't exactly the most athletic team in the conference (Carroll, Ryne Smith, DJ Byrd), but if they can play that 2-3 zone as effectively as they played it against the Wildcats they'll have a chance. And besides, what's Tubby's other option anyway? They have no choice but to go with Hoff, Rodney, Colt, Ralph, and Mbakwe for the majority of the game.
3) Is Purdue overrated? They rank #12 in both polls and #10 in Ken Pomeroy's statistical rankings, and I'm going to say slightly, and also very much at the same time. Slightly, because I think they are a top 15 type team nationally based on watching them play. Very much, because if you look at their results they've done basically nothing so far this year. Outside of a win over Michigan State, they don't have a single win over a top 50 RPI team, losing in their other three opportunities, and they just got shellacked by Ohio State (although, realistically, there's no shame in that - the Buckeyes would have beaten any team in the country last night, including the NBA). So although they look like a good team, they haven't really proven to be just yet.
4) Can the Gophers win in Mackey Arena? Can they? Yes. Will they? I'd say probably not, but I got a funny feeling and it's not just in my pants. The three bigs lineup has me feeling confident. Maybe it's just the "shiny new toy" aspect, or maybe I'm a deranged homer, but I just don't see how Purdue can stop it short of Hoffarber shatting himself, and I don't see that happening. So it all really comes down to if you think the Gophers can stop Purdue. And guess what? I think they can.
Minnesota 67, Purdue 64.