Minnesota has proven this season that it’s good enough to get back into the field of 65 come March. But taking its game to another level will take time and rebounding.
The Gophers have improved on the boards since Michigan State grabbed 22 more boards than them in a New Year’s Eve loss to open Big Ten play. And they’ve added about four inches to their front line with 6-11 freshmen Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson in the paint.
But they don’t have the athleticism to compete with elite teams on the glass. In the team’s second outing against Michigan State Wednesday, the Spartans grabbed 42 rebounds to Minnesota’s 26. And preseason All-Big Ten forward Raymar Morgan didn’t even play.
Either Sampson and Iverson will have to turn up their aggression meters and get more physical on the boards or Tubby Smith will have to insert 6-8 athletic forward Paul Carter into his starting rotation. The latter seems like a logical step. Especially when you have a Gophers team that plays five games on the road in the Big Ten in February.
MICHIGAN STATE 76, MINNESOTA 47: That score’s no typo. Michigan State (18-4, 8-2 Big Ten) destroyed the Gophers (18-4, 6-4 Big Ten) in East Lansing, Mich., Wednesday. Sophomore Durrell Summers scored 17 of his 21 points in the first half, including a monster dunk on alley-oop from Kalin Lucas.
No. 19 Minnesota’s leading scorer, Devoe Joseph, had 11 points. But it wasn’t enough to make up for a 4-for-23 first half. Or No. 13 Michigan State’s 42 to 26 rebounding advantage.
The Gophers had a chance to tie Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten but now sit in fifth place.
Minnesota made 28.8 percent of its shots, while Michigan State made 51 percent of its shots.
Al Nolen’s continuing to play up and down basketball. After recording 10 assists and two turnovers in the team’s previous two games, he had two assists and two turnovers against Michigan State Wednesday. Tubby Smith said he needed more from his sophomore point guard.
Devoe Joseph is really growing. The freshman point guard, who is more comfortable playing on the wing, led Minnesota with 11 points against Michigan State. He’s scored 34 points in his last five games. And he’s proven that he’ll step up when others won’t.
Where’s Colton Iverson? The freshman center continues to start without really making an impact on the offensive end. He scored three points against Michigan State and averaged 5.8 ppg entering Wednesday’s matchup against the Spartans.
Freshman Ralph Sampson III might be learning how to use his massive 7-foot frame to his advantage. He went to the free-throw line 10 times against Illinois, easily a career high. Prior to that, he hadn’t attempted more than four free throws in any game. He is shooting 82 percent from the line, so if Sampson continues to draw fouls, he could be a miserable matchup inside for opponents.
The emphatic 23-point victory against Illinois on Jan. 29 snapped a 20-game losing streak to the Illini. Minnesota hadn’t beaten Illinois since Feb. 3, 1999.
The loss to Michigan State began a stretch of four of the next five games away from Williams Arena.
Tubby Smith has been able to keep everyone’s minutes down by continuing to use a deep and productive bench. Smith hinted when conference play began that minutes might be drying up for some guys, yet with nine games remaining, the Gophers have 11 players averaging double figures in minutes and no one playing more than 28 per night.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual starters — G Lawrence Westbrook, G Al Nolen, F Damian Johnson, F Ralph Sampson III, C Colton Iverson. Key subs — G Blake Hoffarber, F Paul Carter, F Jamal Abu-Shamala, G/F Travis Busch, G Devoe Joseph, G Devron Bostick.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “I’m happy here in Minnesota. I’m not looking for any other jobs.” — Coach Tubby Smith.
Purdue 70, Minnesota 62
Minnesota 67, Indiana 63
Minnesota 59, Illinois 36
Michigan State 76, Minnesota 47
at Ohio State, Saturday, Feb. 7
vs. Indiana, Tuesday, Feb. 10
at Penn State, Saturday, Feb. 14