Thoughts on a 77-73 loss to the Golden Gophers:
Minnesota, fresh off a a visit from a sports psychologist and a players-only meeting over the weekend, had its mind right for No. 1 tonight in The Barn. This would not be the Golden Gophers team that found itself embarrassed after two back-to-back 20-point losses, another Tubby Smith team losing its way again in the dead of the Minnesota winter. No, this would be the team that once found itself in the Top 10 in all of college basketball — one with experience and talent and athleticism. A team that made a furious rally against the Hoosiers on Jan. 12 inside Assembly Hall and nearly pulled out a victory.
Trevor Mbwake would make sure Indiana knew early that this game was going to be a physical war in the paint. He would score 10 of Minnesota’s first 14 points and simply could not miss, would not miss. Six years in the college game, the first under Tom Crean, and it was one of his finest performances. Mbwake would keep the grind and the hustle going all night despite foul trouble, and finished with 21 points (8-of-10 from the field, 5-of-7 from the line), 12 rebounds and a block of Cody Zeller in the first half that said: “Yes, Player of the Year candidate, I came to compete tonight.”
Half of Mbwake’s rebounds were on the offensive end of the court, and this is where Minnesota would beat the Hoosiers possession after possession after possession (after possession after possession). An atrocious Golden Gopher performance beyond the arc (4-of-20) was offset by Minnesota’s beasting on the boards; it snatched an ungodly 53.4 percent of its misses, leading to 23 second-chance points. It led to the Gophers taking 11 more shots than the Hoosiers and helping it score 40 of its 77 points inside the paint. Twenty-three offensive rebounds in total, and it was simply too much for Indiana to overcome. Minnesota out-rebounded the Hoosiers and outscored them on a per-possession basis (1.23 vs. 1.13). This does not happen often.
Indiana has gotten off to strong starts on the backs of Christian Watford and Cody Zeller so often this Big Ten season, but they were but ghosts in the 85-year-old Williams Arena. Mbwake and Rodney Williams put Zeller on his heels in first half with a pair of blocks. Zeller would head to halftime with zero fields goals and two points. He wouldn’t make his first bucket until the 8:40 mark of the second half. He would end the game on the bench, fouled out of the contest. The Washington, Ind. native would make all five of his free throws and snag seven boards, but finished the game just 2-of-9 from the floor.
Watford, the model of scoring consistency over the last few months, only mustered one bucket until the last minute of the game, when he’d net both a trailing and corner 3-pointer for six quick points to give Indiana hope. His streak of 19 straight Big Ten games scoring double-figures ended tonight, though, as he would finish with eight points.
Jordan Hulls was feeling it, the quick release so finely documented by Dan Dakich on the ESPN telecast, dropping trey after trey in the first half. But Hulls’ 5-of-7 performance from beyond the arc for 17 points was punctuated by just a 1-of-3 mark in the second half. His only make after intermission dropped late with a 3-pointer from the Wisconsin-Minnesota border.
Tonight’s loss is not of the sky-is-falling variety. ESPN Bracket Lord Joe Lunardi swiftly tweeted when it looked as if the Hoosiers might fall that Indiana would not lose the No. 1 overall seed with a loss. Minnesota is better than it’s been playing of late and clocks in at No. 19 in the nation via Ken Pomeroy. The Hoosiers did not lose poise or wilt under the weight of the crowd; Minnesota simply outworked them. Three losses in the Big Ten season at this juncture still has the Hoosiers on the top of the heap.
But that’s not how it may end. Indiana’s loss tonight could have cost it an outright grasp of the conference title depending on how things shake out. Wins against Ohio State and Michigan State on the road had hopes high, but nothing is ever guaranteed in Big Ten basketball, and there’s still season left to play.