The Gophers learned many lessons playing in the 76 Classic Thanksgiving Tournament. Yes, Minnesota can play with anyone in the country, but they aren't good enough to win when they don't play well—at least not yet.
However, the most important lesson learned over the weekend is that you do it Coach Smith's way or you don't play.
The 82-73 win by Minnesota over Butler sent the most rabid Gopher fans to the NCAA website to see how they could order first round tournament tickets. Optimism was warranted given how well Minnesota played.
The Gophers, with their aggressive defense, forced the Bulldogs into 21 turnovers. Butler could only muster shooting 33 percent from the floor in the face of Minnesota’s pressure.
As has historically been the case for Tubby teams, good defense led to easy baskets in an up-tempo game. Minnesota shot 50 percent from the field and 47 percent from beyond the arc as they controlled the game for the entire second half.
The only blemishes for Minnesota were a technical foul picked up by Al Nolen by kicking the basketball in response to a call made by an official and the Gophers shooting 64 percent from the free throw line.
Unfortunately, these two issues would be themes for the weekend.
The Portland Pilots upset the Gophers the following night, 61-56.
Early in the ballgame, Coach Smith substituted all of his starters. The lack of defensive effort by the starters appears to have motivated Tubby to get his team to play hard on defense.
The move worked, as the Gophers played hard. Minnesota forced Portland into turning the ball over 19 times and the Gophers limited the Pilots to shooting only 39 percent from the floor.
Unfortunately, the Gophers did not always play smart on defense as they often left Portland's best outside threat open. Portland's point guard T.J. Campbell scored 23 points, making four of his eight attempts from downtown.
Campbell came into the game shooting better than 50 percent from beyond the arc. It is inexplicable why the Gophers double-teamed in the post, leaving Campbell open at the three-point line.
The Gophers also struggled on the offensive end.
Portland did a great job getting back in transition, eliminating fast break opportunities, and forcing Minnesota to run its half court offense. When Portland took the lead in the game they often went into a 2-3 zone.
Minnesota looked constipated trying to find an open shot all night; the team shot an anemic 33 percent from the floor.
Minnesota failed to make any of its 12 attempts from beyond the arc in the second half. Opposing teams will likely use zone defenses against the Gophers until they demonstrate they are capable of knocking down perimeter shots.
As bad as they played, the Gophers could have won if they could have made their free throws. Minnesota shot 59 percent from the charity stripe, making only 13 of their 22 attempts.
The most embarrassing statistic of game was that the Pilots out-rebounded the Gophers, 42-33.
The most surprising game of the tournament was Minnesota's last game against Texas A & M, which they lost 66-65.
Starting guards Al Nolen and Lawrence Westbrook were benched and saw less than 15 minutes of playing time for violating team rules. Coach Smith said little after the game about the decision he made concerning Nolen and Westbrook.
The statement by Tubby in punishing Nolen and Westbrook hopefully has made it clear that no one on the team is going to get special treatment from the Coach.
Minnesota again struggled on the offensive end to find an open shot. The Gophers shot 39 percent from the floor, 33 percent from downtown, 67 percent from the line, and they committed 16 turnovers.
Despite limited offensive production, the Gophers' Paul Carter had an opportunity to pull out the game on a last second shot.
The Gophers' defensive effort against the Aggies was similar to Portland—aggressive pressure on the ball and good denial of passing lanes, but failure to properly defend the three-point line.
The Aggies shot 41 percent from the floor and committed 14 turnovers primarily because of ball pressure applied by the Gophers. But, the Aggies also shot 43 percent from the arc because Minnesota allowed too many open looks.
The Gophers left Anaheim knowing that they have the talent to play with the best teams in the country with their victory over Butler. They are able to play consistent defense regardless of who is on the floor and can usually limit their opponent to 40 percent shooting or less.
The most obvious weakness for the Gopher defense is their inability to identify the opposing team's best outside threat and contest all shots taken from beyond the arc.
As a team, the players should know that they are not ready to be considered among the best teams in the country.
The Gophers' offense is stagnant and they often struggle to get open shots. Minnesota's scoring problems are compounded by their failure to shoot at least 75 percent from the free throw line.
Going into the tournament, three Gopher players were suspended and unavailable. Coach Smith then had to punish two of his starters by limiting their playing time during the tournament.
If we didn't already, we should now know that Tubby is willing to suffer losses in order to ensure that his players are properly disciplined.
At the end of the day, the two losses suffered by Minnesota should not hurt the team's NCAA resume as Portland and Texas A & M should either be in the tournament or at least bubble teams.
Next up, Minnesota plays the Miami Hurricanes in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. While it is early, this game already feels like a must win game for the Gophers as they need all the wins they can get before the Big Ten season begins.
Hopefully, the Gopher team that played Butler will show up and Minnesota will take another step to becoming a quality team every night they step on the floor.
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