After the Purdue game I wrote "a win is a win." After this game, I'll say a road win in the Big Ten is a road win in the Big Ten. Despite one of the worst stretches of the season since the Arkansas game, the Gophers played a little better down the stretch, took advantage of some luck with Penn State's two best players fouling out, and got a conference road win. I'll take it. Mostly because I don't exactly have a choice. Anyway, here are 10 things I liked and didn't like about the Penn State game:
1. No matter how ugly the game was, the Gophers made the plays they needed to down the stretch. And yes, it was crazy ugly, but they did what they needed too. Malik Smith nailing four key free throws after not hitting a thing all day. DeAndre Mathieu with a huge steal and a huge tip in after struggling to score most of the first half. Austin Hollins, having maybe his worst game as a Gopher which is hard to envision after how he played against Michigan, coming up with an absolute monster steal right when the Gophers needed it. Maybe it doesn't get to that point if Frazier and Newbill don't foul out, and maybe none of those plays get made and Penn State coasts to a W. But guess what? They did, they didn't, and the Gophers did what they needed to win. It probably seems a bit Pollyanna-ish, which is generally against my character, but screw it, this is most likely a lost year between coaches anyway, so I'm gonna take what I can get.
2. Nobody, and I mean nobody, could stop Tim Frazier. Mathieu tried, both Hollinses tried, even Ahanmisi tried and it didn't matter, because Frazier could get into the lane whenever he wanted - and he wanted to a lot. And I don't know if it was by design as an overreaction to the end of the Purdue game, but it seemed like every time Frazier (or one of their crappy guards, even) got into the lane the Gopher help hung back, giving Frazier floater after floater after floater as the world's worst announcing team was happy to tell you over and over and over again. Luckily he fouled out right as we were getting down to it, and I don't think the Gophers win that game if he's still on the floor because, like I said, the Gophers had zero ability to stop his dribble penetration.
That's now three straight Big Ten games and dribble penetration has been a major, major issue in all three, and most of it is coming off ball screens. Early in the game, when the Gophers had control, the big men were hedging well and pushing the ball handler out until the screened man could recover and all was well. Then it all went to shit. The Gopher bigs started hedging too early or too late, and when Penn State started doing the double pick at the top of the key for Frazier the Gophers basically started committing four players to dealing with it, which meant there were skip passes available. I'm starting to think the Gophers just don't have the personnel to handle most Big Ten teams defensively, and that's no good for anyone.
3. Elliott can kind of control the paint. Another double double with four blocks, and it looked early like the Gopher game plan was going to force feed him the ball on the block and it was working. Even when Mo was in getting him the ball down low was working offensively. Then the Gophers decided to go completely away from that strategy and become a jump shooting team again. Do you know that Eliason only had two field goal attempts in the second half, and one of them came on a tip in? Not that he should be getting a ton of FGAs, but when he's demonstrated already that Penn State struggles to guard him I wouldn't mind seeing a touch or two, you know? And I'm not even sure Walker played in the second half. I can't believe I'm saying this, but against most teams Elliott needs to be an offensive focal point, just for variety's sake. Not against Michigan State.
3. I've always been an Oto defender, but he's just lost out there far too often. He has no idea where to go on defense, and that goes for both his positioning as well as things like hedging on screens and help defense. These things aren't new, but as his playing time becomes more and more high profile they just stand out more and more. Then he does things like, let's a pass go through his legs five hole style and then falls down trying to go after it which leads to a Penn State lay-up, or he let's himself get pushed under the basket on a Penn State free throw leading to a Nittany Lion rebound in a big, big, big spot. And it's not like it's just this game, you can point to at least 2-3 mistakes of his each game, easy. I think he's got some offensive ability as the jump shot seems to have come back as Pitino's given him more confidence to take open shots, and he brilliantly slipped a screen at one point and then nailed the 18 footer, but I really don't know if he can offset his piss poor defense with his mediocre offense. Then again, the only other choice at the 4 spot is a Joey King who completely panics any time he has the ball in a non scoring position, so really Pitino is pretty well screwed here.
4. Speaking of things that are horrible, Stephen Bardo is just the worst announcer ever. Repetitious, stating the obvious, creating a narrative and sticking with it no matter what, repetitious, infatuated with anyone banking in a shot, and he tends to repeat the same thing over and over again. Honestly, how many times did you hear that the Gophers were the best free throw shooting team in the Big Ten but were having a bad game? Or that it was a miracle Penn State was winning even though Newbill was barely playing due to foul trouble? How about him trying to sell the fact that bad free throw shooting is contagious. Seriously, once I noticed how horrible he was I kept waiting to see if he'd bring any insight at all to the broadcast, and he did - once. When Oto slipped that screen mentioned above, Bardo made sure to point it out and even explain it. But that was it. There was literally not one single other word he uttered that added to the broadcast. Someone should light his car on fire.
5. I'm all for consistency and installing a system, but if it's not working I'm not sure sticking with it makes sense. Naturally I'm talking about the press, which wasn't working and was creating easy buckets for Penn State who kept beating the Gophers down the floor and creating odd man rush situations and wasn't creating any turnovers or easy baskets for Minnesota. I suppose I shouldn't have expected it, given that he never backed off when Arkansas was shredding the Gophers. Normally I would say you need to adapt your system to your personnel and if it's not working it's not working, but in this case I think I'm ok with it. Pitino likely knows his ceiling is an NCAA bid this year and next and it's not likely either team will have much of any chance to go further, so it's all about building his brand for the class of 2015 and beyond. Let those kids see how Minnesota basketball is balls to the wall and fun fun fun for 40 minutes and hope it pays dividends. It's going to cause some ugly situations, like tonight, but it should pay off down the road. I hope. Please.
6. Penn State doubled on a lot of ball screens, and neither team took advantage. The point of doubling on a ball screen of course, is to create turnovers, and although the Gophers turned it over an uncomfortable 14 times I can't remember even one coming off of a Penn State double. If you're not turning it over on a double, that means you should be able to find an open man and unless the defensive rotations are very tight you should be able to get an open shot. That didn't happen either. And it wasn't because Penn State's rotations were so great, more that the Gophers were slow to swing the ball, or hesitant to drive the ball, or just couldn't make the right pass. Overall the Gopher offense was pretty rough tonight, and getting a win on a night when things just aren't working properly is probably a good sign. Or not. I don't know. This team is frustrating.
7. Malik Smith has proven himself to be a very valuable Gopher, but I'm not exactly sure he should be driving the paint. I love a lot of what he brings, and my buddy, "The Bear" has taken to calling him J.R. after J.R. Smith which is pretty much perfect, but when he puts the ball on the floor and drives it's an adventure. As with all true chuckers, which Malik most definitely is even though he has toned it down a bit from his FIU days, once he has the ball in the paint he's damn sure he's going to be able to score which leads to some, um, creative moves. And creative can work, just look at Mathieu and Dre Hollins when they get into the lane, but that's not exactly something that's in his skill set. When he puts his head down and heads to the hole it's kind of like Mav bringing the ball up against the press - just hope things don't go too terribly wrong and somebody gets lucky.
8. Dre Mathieu's gambling finally paid off. Dre has a habit of going after a steal, and I don't mean jumping passing lanes, I mean he tries to pick pockets all the freaking time. He loves both not moving his feet and swiping at the ball in front of him and trying to sneak around behind a ball handler and poke the ball out from behind. I can't actually remember any of this working for him this year, although with a steal rate in the top 70 of the country it must have happened, but I remember plenty of times he put himself completely out of proper defensive position. Tonight, however, he managed to poke the ball away from whoever it was that's Penn State's third ball handler is in one of the biggest spots of the game and, I guess, the season so far. I've said I like my point guard a little bit reckless, and that includes defense when you're as fast with hands as quick as Mathieu's, so I'm ok with all this, I'm just happy to see it pay off in a big, big way.
9. Speaking of the Honey Gopher, he just doesn't quit and I love it. Mathieu's best move is to drive way into the lane, probably too far truth be told, and then figure out what he's doing from there. At just 5-9 and against Big Ten big men, both in size and ability, this can lead to some really ugly shots and/or turnovers - and it has, no doubt. But in a situation where that wasn't working many less confident players would change their game and start playing differently, but Honey Gopher just kept pounding away and it paid off huge for Minnesota with him scoring the team's last four field goals including two absolute monsters. He's proven himself to be a huge late get for Pitino, and he's perfect for what Pitino wants to do on both sides of the court. I am a big, big fan.
10. Illinois is ranked?!??!?! How can this be? I'm watching the game and all of a sudden the flash up "Next, #23 Illinois takes on #4 Wisconsin" and I was like, wait, Illinois is ranked? The same team who lost to Georgia freaking Tech? The same team who almost lost to UIC, IPFW, and Dartmouth? The team whose best win was a lucky one over Missouri? Sorry folks, but Illinois is terrible. Completely terrible. Fact. And losing to Wisconsin by like, a hundred or something just proves I'm right. You watch, the Gophers will lose by less at Wisconsin than Illinois, and that's a guarantee I would have made before tonight, too.
Alright so I admit most of these things sound negative even though they won, but seriously that was a really ugly win. There is, and I'm not saying anything you don't know, a whole lot of major flaws with this team and right now it's really difficult to envision them upsetting any of the top tier Big Ten teams. Right now I can come up with 6 maybe 7 more games they really should win, but 3 of those are on the road so it's hard to think they can take all 3 down. They're going to need to win the games they should and steal at least 1, two depending on how many the drop where they shouldn't. It's going to be awfully tough to get an NCAA bid, but hey, what the hell, right? I'll just enjoy the ride. Until I end up throwing the remote at my TV. But if I didn't do it tonight, maybe I'm actually a level headed fan? Seems unlikely, but hey, on Boy Meets World Eric goes from a girl obsessed but mostly normal teenager to a completely ditzy buffoon of a college kid, so I guess anything is possible.