By Mike Gallagher
After a good start to the conference season with a win over Penn State, the Gophers found themselves in Iowa City for a clash with the struggling Hawkeyes.
With sophomore guard Anthony Tucker, Iowa’s second leading scorer, indefinitely suspended after an arrest on public intoxication charges, the Hawkeyes were facing an uphill battle.
The Gophers’ full-court press quickly turned this matchup into a blowout, with the U going up 21-4 early. At that point, the Hawkeyes had twice as many turnovers as points, with eight.
Things didn’t get better from there as the Gophers led by as many as 25 in the first half when they continued to turn the flustered Hawkeye turnovers into open threes and un-contested layups.
The Hawkeyes’ fate was sealed by their top scorer, Matt Gatens, who struggled to get going, and finished 4-14 from the field to send Iowa to an 86-74 loss- dropping them to 5-9 on the year. Obviously Iowa is going to be one of the bottom three programs in the conference this year and struggle to put up points, affirmed a few days later by the Fighting Illini, who held Iowa to 42 points in a 17 pt. victory.
Either way, Tubby Smith has been around post-game press conferences a long time….
“They played extremely hard, and we played extremely hard, so it was a good win for us on the road in the Big Ten.” Thank you walking, talking cliché machine Tubby Smith.
He is right, though, power conference road games are never easy, except this one, which was over before the first TV timeout.
The Gophers weren’t forced into their half-court offense, which can struggle at times, much against Iowa, since they created 24 turnovers. The better test of the overall team game would be the next clash @ undefeated and #4 Purdue.
Things went slightly different for the Gophers Tuesday, as the Boilermakers slowly built a lead throughout the first half, capped by a Chris Kramer three at the buzzer.
The Boilermakers used that momentum to jump on the Gophers in the second half, building a 14-point lead with tenacious man-to-man defense that clearly frustrated the Tubby’s squad, and by knocking down 65% of their shots in the second half. The Gophers on the other hand, shot only 31% for the game.
The difference between the Iowa game and the Purdue contest? Aside from the obvious talent and performance difference between Iowa and Purdue, the Gophers had major problems on the offensive end of the court vs. the Boilermakers. While Purdue did play very good defense, the Gophers simply did not create the opportunities they did vs. Iowa.
The Gophers defense gave the offense a lot of points vs. the Hawkeyes, and while they still did create 17 turnovers against Purdue, the press was not as successful. Aside from one run in the second half that got the Gophers six quick points and within eight, Purdue was able to break down the Gophers D easily, creating many open shots.
The bottom line is, sometimes against good teams, the press will not always be successful. Good ball handlers and quick, athletic, smart guards will move right through it and set up chances for their big men. Instead of the defense creating points for the offense, the half-court sets the Gophers have drawn up will have to shoulder the load of their scoring chances.
The problem in the Purdue game, despite the fact that the Boilermakers shot 52% from the field and got 26 easy points from the line, was not the defense.
The problem was that when Purdue broke the press and scored, the offense failed to answer. 31% from the field is not good enough, and the only reason the Gophers kept it as close as they did was because of their 19 offensive rebounds.
The half court offense struggled at times last year as well, which led to disappointing point totals against the Big Ten’s top half. At this point in the program’s maturation and recruiting under Tubby Smith, there are not enough individual playmakers to have a successful half court offense when the team’s set plays break down.
The only person that has shown consistent ability to create off the dribble and get to the hoop, despite his disappointing offensive performance Tuesday, is Al Nolen.
I know what you’re thinking, Lawrence Westbrook is clearly the team’s best scorer and has a very good offensive game. These things are true, but when Westbrook gets to the rim, his modest 6’0”, 195 pound frame is accentuated by his behavior around the rim. He seems to shy away from contact and does not have a good feel of how to be productive around the basket.
Nolen, however, has shown time and again, that he can blow past his defender, no matter who it is, get to the rim and at the very least, get to the line. In addition to leading the Big Ten in steals, being at the top of the press on the Big Ten’s most aggressive defense, and being a force on the defensive side of the ball, Nolen can be a Kalin Lucas-type offensive threat as well, if Tubby Smith just lets him.
Smith likes his point guard to be more of a distributor, but in this case Smith should look at the people around Nolen.
There is no great inside presence on the Gophers, their off-guard is more of a shooter rather than an effective slasher, and their other starter is a strictly spot up weapon. Nolen is not a great shooter, so for him to be effective at all on the offensive end of the court, he has to get to the rim.
His percentages will not show it, they will actually be unflattering, but Nolen can be a strong offensive force. Harkin back to the non-conference 2008 season. Against a powerful top ten Louisville squad, Nolen took over, getting to the rim at ease and making 13 free throws, to get the Gophers over the hump against the Big East defensive stalwart. Consider the game vs. Purdue last year, when the Gophers were struggling to put up points, Nolen dropped 17, going 10-10 from the line keeping the Gophers competitive. There’s no denying, when an offense struggles, nothing saves it like a guy that can get to the rim. For the Gophers, that’s Al Nolen.
I’m not one to question Tubby Smith often, as he is consistently one of the best coaches in the nation, but I believe he could be constructing his offense a little better. Knowing your personnel is key, and when the clock ticks down and an offense breaks down, find a guy that can get to the rim and create for others with his drives.
Everyone has a niche, for Al Nolen, saving the Gopher offense could be his.
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