SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- When Tubby Smith made the abrupt decision to leave Kentucky on his own terms and go to Minnesota in 2007, the question at hand was whether he could lead the Gophers to a championship.
Last season, he directed a depleted roster that was without its top defender (ineligible Al Nolen) to the school’s first-ever Big Ten tournament title game appearance. The Gophers lost and then fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota was on the verge of having momentum in the offseason with Nolen eligible, Trevor Mbakwe cleared of his legal troubles and the embattled Royce White finally gone. But then the team’s best offensive creator, Devoe Joseph, failed to live up to Smith’s standards and was suspended indefinitely prior to the start of the season. Minnesota’s attempt to earn a championship of any sort, beginning with the Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off, seemed derailed.
Well, not quite.
The Gophers beat No. 8 North Carolina 72-67 on Friday night by outmuscling the Tar Heels in the paint. They locked down the first-ever freshman preseason first-team all-American Harrison Barnes (a stunning 0-for-12 from the field) and showed the country the strength and depth of their frontcourt.
What does it mean? Well, for starters, Minnesota will play West Virginia in Sunday night’s championship game on ESPN2. And every other Big Ten team should be put on notice that the Gophers are a legitimate contender with Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue for the conference title.
“I think at the beginning of the year we definitely had the confidence that we could beat these type of teams, but you want some of the younger guys on the team to see it too,’’ said Minnesota senior guard Blake Hoffarber. “I think we proved a lot to a lot of people.’’
The Minnesota staff said that Joseph still has to go through a checklist of things for him to be reinstated by Smith after being suspended for a violation of team rules. He wasn’t on the trip and hasn’t played in a game this season, despite averaging 9.4 points a game last season.
“The guys know that we’re team-oriented, and while we certainly miss Devoe, we believe in the guys we have,’’ Smith said. “We’ve worked extremely hard in the offseason and on our Canadian trip [in August] and learned some things about what buttons to push. We’ve overcome a lot of challenges.’’
The Gophers haven’t played a slouch yet, beating solid mid-majors in Wofford, Siena and then Western Kentucky in the first round here in Puerto Rico.
But what Carolina found out is that Minnesota is a bear to deal with in the post with Ralph Sampson III (12 points), Mbakwe (12 points, nine boards), Colton Iverson (11 boards) and Maurice Walker (five points, four boards) all able to clog the middle, board and defend. The Minnesota bigs outplayed the Tar Heels’ John Henson (as many turnovers as blocks with three), Tyler Zeller (played in foul trouble most of the game) and Justin Knox (fouled out) in addition to locking down Barnes a day after he scored 19 points in the first half and looked unstoppable against Hofstra. Barnes was humbled and completely shut down by the Gophers’ defense
“They are tough,’’ Zeller said. “We had a hard time getting through the screens. It’s effective the way they use everyone. If one [big] gets tired, then the next one comes in and is very talented. It makes it very difficult.’’
The Gophers outrebounded North Carolina, got to the line more often and had an answer for any and every UNC run. Hoffarber led the Gophers with 20 points and Sampson and Mbakwe each had a dozen, but this was clearly a team that had balance.
“We lost our composure from the first moment of the game,’’ North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “They were the more aggressive team right from the start and we did all the backpedaling. We didn’t react.’’
Williams wasn’t pleased with the poor boxing-out by his team or how the Gophers were effective in getting to the rim.
“We just stunk,’’ Williams said. “They were more aggressive than we were. It wasn’t a good night.’’
Williams vented a bit about the attention Barnes received Friday by ESPN for his performance Thursday, saying that “it’s tough on a freshman when everybody is saying he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and to live up to that. People need to be realistic.’’
But he didn’t shy away from crediting the Gophers.
“We’re standing and dribbling, going side to side and they’re attacking the basket,’’ Williams said. “And they’re good defensively. Every time we set a screen, they got over it. And every time they set a screen, we hit it and acted like it was Velcro.’’
The Tar Heels shot 22 percent on 3s, under 40 percent overall and could never get in an offensive rhythm against Minnesota’s switching defenses.
But whether they would admit it or not, the Gophers were anxious to prove they belong in the elite by beating a blueblood like Carolina on a neutral court.
And they were convincing in doing so.
“We knew this was a big game for the program,’’ Mbakwe said. “We just came out and played well and played every play like it was our last.’’