By Mike Gallagher
Al Nolen’s appeal for re-instatement was denied Tuesday, while Royce White’s saga officially came to an end on Wednesday, two things that are desperately hurting the Gophers on the floor in their quest to the NCAA tournament.
At this point, after their helpless effort at Ohio State Sunday, Tubby Smith can’t even comprehend the idea of the NCAA tournament.
“After today, we’d better figure out how we can win another game,” said Smith in his postgame press conference Sunday.
It’s hard to see them doing that after their last performance Sunday, and looking at the situations of White and Nolen, you saw in that game and have been seeing the effect of their absences on the court.
Specifically Nolen’s situation is crushing the Gophers, especially on the defensive end.
Offensively, Devoe Joseph has played well since stepping in, showing signs of being able to be a legitimate second option. Defensively, however, in the three games without Nolen, the Gophers have gotten dominated by opposing point guards.
Granted, Kalin Lucas was the Big Ten POY and William Buford was Big Ten Freshmen of the Year last year, but despite their considerable talent, it’s nothing Al Nolen couldn’t handle. He limited Lucas to 3-14 from the field in their first meeting while Buford was held to 7-17 on field goal attempts.
In the latter meetings, two Saturdays ago against Michigan State and last Sunday against OSU, both without Nolen’s lockdown presence at the PG spot, Kalin Lucas went 8-14 from the field while dropping 22, and Buford was 10-14 with 26 points.
Even the third game without Nolen, which was against Northwestern last Tuesday, Michael Thompson went for 15 points and six assists, a game in which the Gophers struggled to win at home.
It’s an arguable point that the Gophers played their most complete game of the year against Michigan State, but when they needed a stop or a bucket, they couldn’t come up with one, which ended up costing them a game they had no business losing.
The key to the offensive and defensive end, which has been well chronicled in this space, was the press. Emphasis on the was, because the Gophers seem to have thrown it out of the defensive sets, and are playing strictly half-court defense, which is obviously not their strength (Ohio State 62% from the field). Tubby Smith must feel like Devoe Joseph is not capable of being at the head of the aggressive trapping defense that can cause so many mistakes from the other team. After all, in order to be able to stop a guy for 94 feet, you probably need to be able to stop him for 47, and Joseph has gotten lit up on all 47 of those feet each of the last three games.
Offensively, it’s safe to say the Gophers have gotten better in the half court offense since Al Nolen’s departure. But if you give up 85 points to any team, you’re going to lose 99% of the time in the Big Ten. Tubby Smith needs to figure out how he can stop explosive offenses like OSU and MSU, perhaps by playing defensively minded players more than the Devoe Joseph’s of the Gophers.
The team misses Nolen, but it arguably misses what it never had evem more. Royce White officially requested release from his scholarship Wednesday and the Gophers obliged. He didn’t play a minute for the Gophers, but was brought in as the 17th ranked player in the nation and was recruited especially for situations like the one the Gophers face now.
The offense needs someone who can create and open up the floor for Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook. Without White, who would undoubtedly require attention in the post as well as on the perimeter when slashing to the rim, defenses are free to guard the Gophers one on one. Quite simply, there’s nothing the Gophers can do about it either, no one on the current roster possesses the offense skill set Royce White does.
White says he will not go to another college and is most likely to try and go to the NBA or head to Europe for a year or so to prove his game has no rust. Either way, you won’t see him in Williams Arena, not that you did before anyway.
Heading forward, Tubby Smith has a lot of work cut out for him to get this team back in shape and ready for the postseason, particularly the Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers should win their next two (@ Penn State, vs. Michigan), then face Northwestern in Evanston, and come back home to Wisconsin. Should the Gophers win two of those, they’ll have 15 wins with five regular season games to go, and officially no help coming to the roster.
An NIT invitation would surely get people rumbling that $2 million a year for Tubby Smith is too much.
But don’t put too much of this on Tubby, he’s gotten talented players to come to Minnesota and he can’t be blamed for it not yet working out. If he can get Cory Joseph to the U, this team will look completely different next year, especially with Trevor Mbakwe coming back. That has the ring of a contender, rather than a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team.
Don’t give up on the team this year, but do the smart thing with your sports team, expect little the rest of the way.
Then you won’t be disappointed when the Gophers are playing George Mason in the first round of the NIT.