Prior to 2007, the extent of my Minnesota knowledge was limited to whatever I'd picked up from Garrison Keillor over the years. But in '07 Minnesota AD Joel Maturi first hired former Longhorn assistant coach Tim Brewster to be the main man for football, then shrewdly snagged Tubby Smith for the hoops revival which has the Gophers sitting across from Texas in the first round of this year's tournament. With Minnesota Golden Gophers chatter in Austin officially en vogue, this presents a convenient excuse to haul in the authors of SB Nation's outstanding MN blog, The Daily Gopher.
Not only should you be sure to visit TDG for excellent material of particular interest to Texas fans, but general college hoops fans of any kind should make sure TDG is part of their tournament plans. Tom's got a double-screen DirecTV super set-up primed for the action, which he'll be discussing live throughout the weekend.
Also keep an eye out for my own (bloated) answers to questions asked by TDG.
Gentlemen, thanks for taking the time to chat. As always, we start with the most obvious question: What do Minnesotans think of the famous "Don't Mess With Texas" campaign? They ran those ads nationwide, you know. So, fill us in: Did y'all find it intimidating? Did it inspire you not to litter? And most importantly, did it project enough swagger to scare the current Minnesota basketball players? Will they, in fact, decide it's best just not to mess with Texas?
The Daily Gopher: Don't mess with Texas? I watch Friday Night Lights and I thought the Texas slogan was "Clear eyes, full heart, can't lose." Regardless, I think the only thing that matters is that everything apparently really IS bigger in Texas (see Dexter Pittman), that is the biggest thing that should be scaring the Golden Gophers.
Honestly though, I think that biggest intimidating factor for the Gophers is the NCAA Tournament itself. Nobody on this roster has played in the Big Dance and to make matters worse the bulk of our roster is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. So Texas is a big name team, but the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament is likely more intimidating than the thought of what will happen if we mess with Texas.
Whatever their fears, it's safe to assume Tubby's gonna make 'em get on the plane for Greensboro to go compete hard for 40 minutes on Thursday. Minnesota is dancing this year as a 10-seed after a solid 22-10 season, highlighted by a 12-0 start which included a neutral floor win over Louisville. Less promising, my bar napkin math says that means the Gophers were a .500 team over the remaining 20 games. So let's start there: put the "season story" together for us as succinctly as possible.
The Daily Gopher: Well the season took some time to ramp up to the Louisville game in December. While Texas was playing Notre Dame, Villanova, UCLA, Michigan State and Wisconsin the Gophers were getting warmed up with Washington (Eastern not the Pac10 version), Georgia (State), Colorado (State), and a handful of other directional schools. Along the way we did beat a couple eventual tourney teams in North Dakota State and Cornell, but they are not exactly high major competition. So when we headed to Arizona to play then #9 Louisville on a neutral court most of us would have been happy to be competitive and see this program heading in the right direction. Shockingly we won leading early, getting up by as many as 13 in the second half and never looked back. That win put us on the map and clearly was the signature win of the year.
Then the Big Ten season hit, we struggled to generate any offense and we battled to a 9-9 record. The conference season had it's highs and lows. We swept arch rival, Wisconsin and we beat Illinois for the first time since 1993. This is a building block season and I think this team surpassed most expectations.
Let's focus in a little bit now and talk personnel. I want to start with the guards, who seem to me perfectly crafted Tubby Smith warrior ants. Westbrook, Joseph, Bostick, Nolen -- they're all great defenders with excellent speed and quickness, and inconsistent-to-poor jump shooters. (Do you feel like you're haunted by the Ghost of Keith Bogans?) Tell us a bit about what these guards do well when Minnesota wins, and their struggles which contribute to losses.
The Daily Gopher: You are kind of accurate in that they do excel on the defensive end but they aren't all great defenders. Al Nolen is one of the best on the ball defenders you will see all year. As a former coach I get a sick thrill out of watching his footwork, quick hands and how he guards the passing lanes. He will get lost on screens occasionally but on the ball he is as good as they come. Westbrook is quick and an OK defender but he seems disinterested at time. Joseph is a freshman, has terrible footwork but has really improved on his defense away from the ball.
Offensively they have struggled for most of the seaosn with each of them breaking out at random times. Westbrook scored 29 at Wisconsin, Nolen scored 18 in the win over Louisville and Joseph threw in 23 at Penn State. The problem is they lack consistency and when they are playing poorly they turn the ball over too much (especially Westbrook). When they are playing well Nolen is penetrating, Westbrook is just plain scoring (he averaged 40 ppg in high school) and Joseph (and Hoffarber) are nailing from the outside. What kind of production we get from these guys is a total crapshoot.
And now the forwards. True to form, Tubby this year has consistently worked into games a deep rotation of contributors, which in the frontcourt includes junior Damian Johnson, sophomore Paul Carter, senior Jamal Abu-Shamala, and freshmen Ralph Sampson and Colton Iverson. Hold your thoughts on match ups against Texas and just walk us through what this group does and doesn't do well.
The Daily Gopher: Damian Johnson is our do everything player. He is great defensively, second in scoring, third in assists, second in rebounding and second in steals. He is easily one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten and had the Gophers posted a better record likely would have been B10 defensive player of the year. The freshmen centers are solid but clearly still learning. On any given night either of them will go for 11 points and 7 boards. They are not there yet but eventually Big Ten coaches will be gameplanning for our twin towers. Paul Carter is a sophomore JUCO transfer. He is very athletic and has had some huge games but more often than not he is a non-factor. If he plays well on Thursday I really like our chances. And finally Jamal Abu-Shamala. He is slow, average defensively, can usually shoot well and is a senior. If he plays 10 minutes I really do NOT like our chances.
Let's stick with this group for a minute, because in looking over the Gophers' stat pages one of the first things which leaped out at me is the truly ridiculous shot blocking numbers of Damian Johnson (59 blocks) as well as the freshmen twin towers Sampson (49 blocks) and Iverson (41). To have three players ranked among the top 32 nationally in block percentage is a truly mind-boggling accomplishment. Or statistical anomaly. Or something. What the hell's going on here? Both freshmen are both tall but neither reaches 7 feet and Johnson plays at 6-7. Are they uncannily coordinated in terms of timing blocks? Is there something in the system (or guard play) that particularly sets them up to rack up rejections? Tell us what this is all about, and then build on that to share with us how you think those frontcourt players will fare against the 6-11, 295-pound Dexter Pittman. As Stanford's Lopez twins found out during last year's Regional Semifinals, tall is not the same as strong; are Minnesota's big men ready for the Sexiest center in all of college basketball?
The Daily Gopher: They do block a ton of shots and it really helps our defense. Part of their success is that offenses are funneled to them. We put a lot of pressure on the frontcourt which leads to back cuts and penetration to the hoop. But more than anything these guys are just good shot blockers. Johnson is only 6'7" ish but he has a freakishly long wingspan. Sampson and Iverson are not huge but they have great timing and get their hands on a lot of shots. Amazingly these guys have remained disciplined and usually don't get into foul trouble reaching for blocks.
How will this translate into defending Pittman? I have no idea. I imagine he will have his way in the paint, pin us deep and score without the fear of a blocked shot. Defensively Sampson/Iverson are going to have to do a little acting to draw a charge or cheap foul or two as Pittman is wont to foul trouble. Iverson is tough and Sampson is savvy but nobody would accuse those guys of playing "strong." Pittman is a bad match up for us without a doubt, but if he can get into foul trouble we should be able to control the paint.
We've talked about the season and you've helpfully illuminated the personnel situation for us, so let's wrap this discussion with your insights into the particular things Minnesota needs to do well to win on Thursday. And of course, any thoughts you have on red flags you'll be hoping not to see from the Gophers. Finally, if you dare, feel free to throw in any predictions about how this one's looking from your seat in the stands. We promise not to hold it against you.
The Daily Gopher: I have no doubt in my mind that the Gophers are capable of winning this game. But being capable is one thing, actually doing it is another. We are exactly what the pundits have accused the Big Ten teams of being. We are very good defensively and sometimes struggle to generate any offense. With that said I don't think Texas will truly know how well we play defense until they get on the court and find out. I anticiapte we will press, I anticipate Nolen will defend Abrams and I think Johnson will guard Jones. On the defensive end I actually like those match ups. If UT really shows up in the frontcourt and the backcourt then things could get ugly. If Pittman dominates the paint, Abrams gets several open looks that he nails and Jones gets space to operate as he pleases we will lose. But you can count on the Gophers taking away at least one of those, Texas is not a scoring juggernaut so we can keep their points at manageable level.
The real question is can we score? We at The Daily Gopher firmly believe that the Big Ten teams (Minnesota included) are looking forward to not facing a Big Ten defense. The hope is that FG% will go up a little and if Pittman spends some time on the bench we will make every effort to dominate the paint. I think the Gophers press early, force turnovers, get Pittman in foul trouble and win by 7.