Gophers Need To Rebound From Loss

Tubby Smith's team knew they would be facing a quality opponent in Michigan State, but their lack of rebounds can't continue if they are to find success in Big Ten play.

Minnesota had a chance to enter its matchup against Ohio State two days after the new year as the best team in Gophers history with a 13-0 record, the best start in 60 years. Instead, Michigan State gave the Gophers a reality check, beating them 70-58 in the Big Ten opener for both teams on New Year's Eve.

The Spartans have enough talent to beat most teams in the Big Ten. But of grave concern is Minnesota's continued challenges on the boards. Michigan State, the Big Ten's best rebounding team, grabbed 49 rebounds to Minnesota's 27.

The Gophers have been outrebounded in four of their last five games. When teams like High Point are challenging your team for rebounds, then you know there's a problem.

"Guys gotta get more rebounds, just gotta rebound the ball more and if you're in the game and you know that's the No. 1 area we've been talking about and you don't have, that means that you didn't really go after the ball probably like you should," Smith said.

The Buckeyes aren't much better than Minnesota on the boards, but 7-footer B.J. Mullens and Big Ten blocks leader Dallas Lauderdale offer their own brand of physicality.

Last season, Smith said the only way to get better on the boards was through recruiting. So he brought in 6-11 freshman post players Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, both of whom have fathers who played pro ball.

But the additional height hasn't been enough to give the Gophers the boost on the glass that Smith anticipated. The Gophers have averaged 34.5 rebounds against their Division I opponents this season, less than a one rebound difference from last season.

Without improvement in that area, it will be hard for the Gophers to rebound from their tough loss against the Spartans and continue to build the momentum they acquired from reeling off 12 straight wins.

MICHIGAN STATE 70, MINNESOTA 58: An undefeated No. 21 Gophers (12-1, 0-1 Big Ten) team had plenty of confidence entering their Big Ten opener against the No. 10 Spartans (10-2, 1-0 Big Ten) at home. And they'd already beaten a top-10 opponent, Louisville, to earn a national ranking.

But the Gophers couldn't hold off the Spartans on the glass. Minnesota grabbed 23 rebounds, while the Spartans scored 21 points off of 23 offensive rebounds.

The Gophers were down by one, 30-29, at halftime and shot a respectable 40 percent from the floor. Still, the disparity on the boards proved insurmountable.

Al Nolen led the Gophers with 14 points, while Lawrence Westbrook added 11 and Blake Hoffarber scored eight.

NOTES

  • The Gophers have never lost a nonconference game at home under Tubby Smith. They will end the season 17-0 under Smith at Williams Arena in non-league games, and the Gophers have won 19 straight dating to the Jim Molinari era.

  • Looking for the map to perfection for Tubby Smith's Gophers? Many have pointed to the lowly combined RPI of Minnesota's opponents. That would discredit what kind of team Rick Pitino could have at Louisville, and also the gold-standard defense the team has played while not venturing far from "The Barn."

  • Minnesota was allowing 61.1 points at home under Tubby Smith, including 60.9 per game this season, through Dec. 28.

  • One game after setting a career-high with 17 points against High Point Dec. 28, Ralph Sampson III was scoreless against Michigan State Wednesday. After the normally mild-mannered player pumped his fists in pre-game warmups, Sampson took an ill-advised jumper from just inside of the free-throw line to start the game, a sign of his anxiety. But it was early foul trouble that plagued him because he wasn't strong enough to play honest defense against Michigan State's solid interior players. Sampson has the length, instincts and pedigree to be a great defender, but he's at least a year away from developing the kind of body that thrives in the Big Ten.

  • Known as a solid defender, Damian Johnson's not much of a pure scorer. His emergence as the team's second-leading scorer has been the result of hustle plays: putbacks, fast-break layups and occasional jumpers. Matched up against one of the Big Ten's most athletic small forwards, Raymar Morgan, he scored three points and picked up his third foul only two minutes into the second half. Without a more developed post game and consistent jump shot, Johnson will have his share of struggles in a league that features numerous athletic small forwards.

  • G Al Nolen won't face a better or faster point guard than Kalin Lucas this season. Even though the Spartans sophomore scored 24 points against him, Nolen held his own and found a way to get the basket for 14 points. Tom Izzo was the second high-profile coach after Rick Pitino to note Nolen's ability to get to the rim at will because of his improved strength.

  • The most difficult spot to determine in Tubby Smith's rotation is shooting guard, where Blake Hoffarber and Lawrence Westbrook are the two best perimeter shooters. But Smith likes the firepower both bring off the bench and has toyed with the idea of not starting either one.

    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.

    IN FOCUS: The Gophers host the Buckeyes to start 2009 in a matchup of perhaps two of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are without junior David Lighty — arguably their best player — who is out at least a month with a broken bone in his foot. Combined, the two teams entered conference play 21-1.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think they've been working really good together. I like their chemistry and the fact that they communicate really well. They've been getting in foul trouble, so it would be great if they can take care of that." — coach Tubby Smith on the tandem of Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, who had combined for 43 blocked shots going into the week.

    GAME REVIEW:

    Minnesota 70, Louisville 64

    Minnesota 80, Southeastern Louisiana 71

    Minnesota 82, High Point 56

    Michigan State 70, Minnesota 58

    GAME PREVIEW:

    vs. Ohio State, Saturday, Jan. 3

    at Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 8

    vs. Penn State, Sunday, Jan. 11


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