I had really hoped the Gophers would manage to snag one win out of this brutal four game stretch, and here it is - so now I hope they can get two. Sure, this win loses a little bit of luster since it was Ohio State's third straight loss, but they're going to be fine and this will still end up as a big time signature win at the end of the year.
Once again, 10 things I liked and didn't like about the game:
1. I never thought I'd type this sentence this season, but the Gophers dominated the inside. How good was Eliason yesterday? No, his footwork is never going to make you think of Olajuwon, but he's managed to harness his post up game into something good enough to at least make defenses pay attention to him, and his rebounding and defense have been absolutely top notch this year to the point where he has a legitimate case as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year if they hadn't already decided to give it to Aaron Craft before the season started. Also have to mention Mo Walker last night, who did more good for this team in a 60 second span than he has the rest of his career combined. I knew Ohio State had some issues in the paint but Amir Williams is Rickert-soft, and the Gophers bigs made the Buckeyes pay.
2. The half-court offense was top notch. I said the Gophers would need to take advantage in transition if they were going to try to compete, but once again it shows why I'm not a coach and instead just write about basketball while drunk. I was concerned the Gophers would do that thing where they rely on the 3-ball in the half court and with OSU's perimeter defense that was never going to work. Well it didn't work as they made just 3, but they didn't rely on it either, shooting only 14. Instead they worked the ball around, were more patient than I can remember this team being - ever - and found good shots to where they shot 64% on two-point shots. 64%!!!! That's insane. Great game.
3. I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable with the power forward spot. Oto had a decent game, and I do like that he seems to have become the
dude on the team who won't take any shit from anybody (something about
having an Eastern Europeaner as the "enforcer" feels right), but it
seems just about impossible for me to feel comfortable when he's in the
game. What's worse, is that I actually audibly groan when he's taken
out because King is even worse. I guess what I'm saying is, screw you
NCAA for not giving us our Buckles (averaging 13 and 9 for FIU).
4. The defensive game plan was solid too. The pressure was soft with little to no trapping, which is a good plan against Craft and Shannon Scott if you're going to insist on pressing at all (and we know Pitino does) and half court was strictly zone, forcing the Buckeyes to beat you from the outside. I mentioned in my preview that this was a good plan, and it worked well with solid rotations in most cases and good overall fundamental defense. Their was a bit of an issue with LaQuinton Ross getting the ball at the free throw line and being able to score from there (he had 22) but they didn't let Craft or Scott beat them with penetration for the most part and the rebounded very well. Excellent game on both ends, both in planning and execution.
5. Craft and Scott are as good as advertised defensively. For all the hype I still came away impressed. Very quick feet, fundamentally sound, and both have about the quickest hands I can remember seeing. They also both have the basketball smarts to "jump routes" for lack of a better term, and each did it with success last night. I was also impressed with Craft's ability to go over a screen but slip between his man and the screener so he doesn't give up any ground. One other thing I noticed was that when the man they're guarding picks up the ball to pass sometimes rather than jump at him they'll jump back to try to get into the passing lane from close up, not every time, but it's not something I can recall seeing many guards do.
6. Daquein McNeil has clearly jumped Maverick in the rotation. Once again McNeil got the playing time that could have gone to Ahanmisi, and it's clear at this point that Pitino prefers the freshman. Could simply be he knows neither of them is great now, but McNeil figures into his future plans while Mav is gone after this season. McNeil certainly looks every bit the part of a freshman playing in the Big Ten for the first time, but to be fair most of the time so does Maverick. All I know is Dawger thinks it should be Mav, which pretty much tells me that going with McNeil in those spots is the absolute right move.
7. I have no idea what's going on with Austin Hollins. He did
finally seem to snap out of his funk or whatever when he got his own
rebound off a missed free throw and put it back in, later making a
couple more FTs and getting a key steal, but he just looked lost out
there for much of this game and really outside of the Purdue game hasn't
been much of a factor in Big Ten play - or at least not a positive
factor. At this point he seems to be having trouble with basic skills
like dribbling and catching, and it's really weird. I don't know if
it's a confidence issue or what, but given that Pitino seems to have
raised the confidence level of pretty much every other player that seems
unlikely. I'm going to chalk it up to he's pressing a bit given it's
his senior year, and assume at some point the real Austin Hollins comes
back. That would be helpful.
8. Did you ever think a late signing, 5-9 Juco point guard would be this good? I know I didn't, but thank god for the Honey Gopher who has clearly taken the point guard position over and allowed Dre Hollins to move to the #2, a move that helps the team immensely. There was a string there in the second half when it looked like Ohio State might be making a move, but Mathieu hit a couple of short jumpers in order to keep the Gophers ahead - as big as Mo's big stretch was, Mathieu's might have been even bigger. His assist to Dre to hit that monster three towards the end of the game was a thing of beauty, and a sign of a perfect match of player to coach as, in reality, the best move may have been to slow things down and run clock, but Mathieu has the freedom to run and create, and it worked to perfection. He's one of the most fun players to watch I can remember in a while. If you ever hear anyone say that Honey Gopher needs to slow down or play more in control I'm going to need you to hit them in the face with a shovel. Please. I don't ask you for much.
9. Turnovers remain an issue. 18 turnovers and a 29% turnover rate is absolutely horrendous, and pulling out a win despite those numbers just shows how well every other facet of the game went for the Gophers last night. In their five Big Ten games the Gophers are turning the ball over 21.8% of the time, dead last in the conference. This might be skewed a bit because the Gophers have already played the top two defenses in the conference in Michigan State and Ohio State, but no doubt this is a major concern.
10. An NCAA bid now becomes a very reasonable goal. The Gophers are now 14-4 and 3-2 in conference play, with an RPI of 26 and SoS of 13 (per ESPN), and two wins already over RPI Top 25 teams (Ohio State, Florida State) - those are some pretty awesome numbers, and based on the fact that the SoS will probably go up rather than down and the RPI is so good right now, I'll say nine Big Ten wins gets the Gophers in. Simple math says that means six more victories. These games are there for the taking: @Nebraska, Northwestern, @Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, and Penn State. Those games will likely see the Gophers favored, and those are your six wins right there. There is also Purdue on the road which is certainly winnable. If the Gophers win all those they're in. If they lose one and win at Purdue they're in. And if they manage to win any of the other games, any at all, any other major upset, and it would take a pretty bad collapse to keep them out.
So, you know. Let's not do that.