Jeff Ghiringhelli and Mike Gallagher discuss a very gritty, defensive Big Ten battle in which #7 Michigan State survived Minnesota’s upset bit 60-53.
Jeff: This was just one of those days for the Spartans. MSU was able to grit out the win, but they had a very tough time against a very gritty Minnesota team. They shot only 36 percent from the field, but much of that was caused by Minnesota’s stifling defense. One factor that helped the Spartans to victory was the absence of Blake Hoffarber. The Gophers’ second leading scorer was held to just four points on 2-5 shooting after dropping 27 in their win over Ohio State. How important is Hoffarber to Minnesota’s success, and if he is shut down, how much of an impact does it typically have on the rest of the team?
Mike: As much as the stats may not show it, this is typical Blake Hoffarber. When he reaches double digits, the Gophers are undefeated this year, when he doesn’t they’re just 3-5. In two of those losses he was shutout, and the pattern that Hoffarber is showing this year is disappearing in big games. The loss at Purdue he only had three points, and the games where he has gotten off have been against inferior competition. Morgan State and Brown may be division one programs, as are Northern Illinois and South Dakota State, but Jeff, even you could go out there and drop 20 on them.
Hoffarber struggles in every situation that he isn’t spotting up behind the arc. The reason he struggles against better teams is they don’t give him an inch of room outside and know that if they take that away, he can’t create his own shot or create for others. He relies on others getting him open, and when Westbrook and Nolen can’t get to the hoop to free him up, he will always have trouble being a factor.
Honestly, he is a glorified role player, and since he is such a good one, he’s getting more attention from defenses. The problem is, when your second leading scorer is a one trick pony only showing up in cupcake games, he can’t just go back to being a role player. You can’t have it both ways, you either have to be a solid contributor when it matters AND against lesser teams, or you’re just a role player who the team can’t always rely on. Since the Gophers lack elite athletes and people that can get Hoffarber open, the offense struggles against top tier teams, Hoffarber or not.
Jeff: Another big storyline was the bench scoring. Coming into tonight’s game, Michigan State and Minnesota were number one and two, respectively, in the Big Ten in bench scoring. However, the Spartan bench, led by Draymond Green and Durrell Summers, outscored the Gophers’ 27-3. In fact, the Gopher bench was a combined 0-8 from the floor as their only points came from the free throw line. Devoe Joseph, who has scored in double figures seven times this year, only had one point on 0-3 shooting. What is a possible explanation for the lack of bench production tonight, when they are typically so good?
Mike: The Spartans depth definitely hurt the Gophers tonight, there were simply too many options for the Gophers to worry about when they needed a stop. With Summers and Green averaging double figures along with three starters as well, I’m not surprised the Spartans bench played so well. If you look at the Gopher bench it’s one that hasn’t gotten the usual clock it did during the non-conference season. Perhaps the lack of game time as well as the Spartans’ lock down defense had something to do with it. With Joseph, he’s a very streaky player. He is 0-11 his last three games and when he can’t get going, it severely hurts the production off the pine.
Jeff: Lawrence Westbrook, Minnesota’s leading scorer, can really light up the scoreboard. He only had three points in the first half, and the Gophers found themselves down by eight. He came out in the second half like a man possessed making his first four shots, including two threes, and got the Minnesota right back in the game. The team had a noticeable pep in their step once Westbrook got it going. I liken him to Kalin Lucas in terms of what he means to the team, and everyone seems to step it up when their leader is playing well. He cooled off after the 4-4 start in the second half, and no one was really able to take his place and keep the run going. Does Westbrook have the ability to put the team on his shoulders game by game? If he has a bad night, who else besides Hoffarber must play better?
Mike: Westbrook is without a doubt the Gophers most explosive scorer and can definitely take over a game, but has trouble getting to the rim and finishing sometimes. With him being more of a perimeter player, when the jump shot goes away, it limits him because he shies away from contact and is not much of a passer inside. The man that needs to step up and create for others is Al Nolen. It’s not a popular opinion, but Nolen has the ability to get to the rim and when he can’t finish, he is able to draw contact and get to the line, or kick it out to a Hoffarber or a Westbrook.
He is not a great shooter, but a good facilitator of the offense. Westbrook has been disappearing in big games for years, so to see him put up 15 was encouraging, but he needed to demand the ball more tonight. He was feeling it and the Gophers needed to take advantage of that, but unfortunately, when the Gophers needed a big shot, they didn’t find it.
Jeff: Everybody knows that the Breslin Center is one of the toughest places to play in the country. Minnesota has not won in East Lansing in over a decade, but they did not seem fazed by the Izzone tonight. They shot a higher percentage, and were only outrebounded by one which is impressive considering MSU’s rebound margin was +11 coming into the game. All that said, Minnesota is on the tournament bubble at this point. The win against Butler was a quality one, but otherwise there is not much. There are still games left against Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, so there are chances for more quality wins. Looking at those three games, how many do you think Minnesota needs to win for them to build a good resume for the tournament?
Mike: Looking at this game, the Gophers played like a team that belongs in the tournament. They stuck with a top ten program on the road, and as you said, especially in the Breslin Center, that is tough to do. The Gophers have only one road win this year and I attribute most of that to the Gophers going away from what spurs their offense at home, the press. Once they get back home, they will most likely use that more and discombobulate and fluster teams that come into Williams Arena.
To focus more on your question, looking at the Gophers schedule, they have it very easy the rest of the way. They don’t have a road game against a currently ranked opponent the rest of the year. Looking at this game as well as their convincing win against an Ohio State team that was welcoming back Evan Turner, they will be able to play tough, if not beat all three of those teams. Purdue looks a little suspect after the loss to Ohio State, the Gophers played Michigan State hard tonight, and Wisconsin, while they have beaten four of the five ranked teams they’ve played this year, may be overachieving a little. The Gophers need seven wins to get them in, eight to make it a comfortable entry to the tournament, and with the cushy schedule they have the rest of the way, should be able to do that. I believe that one win against those big three teams will be good enough, as long as they don’t slip up the rest of the way, to get them in the dance.