Mbakwe, Gophers Look Better in Narrow Loss to Ohio State

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trevor mbakwe

Ohio State is on another level.

That level will not be reached by Purdue, Michigan State, or any team in the Big Ten this year.

So to expect Minnesota to go to Columbus and win was unrealistic, and some would’ve claimed if they could keep the final margin to single digits it would’ve been impressive.

In that same vein, color me impressed, because after two losses against tough Big Ten competition on the road to open the conference season, and an even more concerning four point victory at home vs. Indiana, one could only expect an ugly scene at Value City Arena Sunday. 

The middle 20 minutes of the contest were exactly that for Minnesota, ugly, a stretch that started with the Gophers one point down and ended with them 18 behind with 8:35 to play.

The offense struggled to score in that stretch, with multiple shot clock violations and a number of unforced turnovers, specifically right before the half. 

Ohio State should be given credit as well, with suffocating defense that made it hard for Minnesota to get the ball inside to Trevor Mbakwe while also giving the Gophers nothing on the perimeter (2-14 from 3 for the game).

But the other 20 minutes of the game the Gophers looked phenomenal.

Aggressive, assertive, and attacking would be three very simple ways to describe their play at the beginning and end of the game. 

With a clear lack of creators on the offensive end, specifically with the departure of Devoe Joseph, the Gophers played hustle basketball and played smart, getting to the lane and drawing contact, going 24-27 from the line on the day.

devoe joseph

When you don’t have guys that can break down off the dribble and create open shots for themselves and others, that type of strong, intimidating basketball is the style that you need to play to be successful.

The Gophers were that for half the game, and shared the ball well (13 assists on 19 field goals) as well as shot better than 42% for the first time this conference season. 

The battle between the two best big men in the conference, Mbakwe and Buckeye Fab Freshman Jared Sullinger, ended up just about even, with both notching 12 boards while Mbakwe put up 16 to Sullinger’s 15 points.

Mbakwe showed his dominance on the defensive end as well, blocking four shots, and truly showed how important he is to the Gophers, acting as a stabilizing force for a team that looked lost offensively without him on the court. 

With those two canceling each other out, it came down to a matter of experience and polished play, something David Lighty had, and the Gophers three freshman guards did not.

Lighty dropped 19 and looked impressive on the offensive end, not hesitating to take the shot with even a fraction of space.

david lighty

That came into play on the Gophers last possession, with the ball ending up in the hands of freshman Austin Hollins, whose hesitation to take the would-be-game-tying three resulted in it being blocked, along with the Gophers hopes of an upset.

But to come back from 18 down with 8+ to play is truly an accomplishment on the road in the Big Ten against any conference opponent, let alone the soon-to-be Big Ten champion and possible #1 in the nation. 

This game truly showed Tubby Smith’s importance to Minnesota, and should serve as a constant reminder to Gopher fans why he was such a good hire.

Not only did he manage to instill enough confidence in his team to bring them back from an impossible situation, he also single handedly got Minnesota to the position of possibly tying the game in the final possession. 

With 44 seconds left and the Gophers down by three, it seemed the Gophers would have to either foul one of the Buckeyes better free throw shooters (Jon Diebler or William Buford), or let the 35 seconds run off the clock and run the risk of the Buckeyes scoring and icing the game. 

Rather than those, Smith chose to wait until Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale, who was shooting only 33% at the line coming into Sunday, ran a pick and role. 

When Lauderdale came to set the pick, Smith called for the foul.  Lauderdale missed both free throws, and gave the Gophers numerous chances to tie the game.

While the Gophers couldn’t capitalize or get the W Sunday, there were still all kinds of positives out of the game. 

The improved team play, attacking style of offense they showed towards the end of the game, and Rodney Williams continued offensive effectiveness are just a few of the things that will need to come together for the Gophers to pull off the upset against Purdue Thursday.

It will also be nice for the Gophers to finally have one of the Big Ten’s ranked teams on their home floor.  From now on they only have one game against a ranked opponent on the road, and it’s safe to say that the harder part of their conference schedule is behind them.

The easy schedule the rest of the way may be the only bright side of starting out 1-3 in the Big Ten, but more wins should be in the Gophers near future.

-Mike Gallagher

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