College Basketball Nation: Trevor Mbakwe

CHICAGO -- Seriously: What's wrong with Minnesota?

What is it, exactly, that allowed the Gophers to look like one of the best teams in the country for the first two months of the season, and utterly pedestrian for the final six weeks? Why can the Gophers play urgent, efficient basketball against the best team in the country -- which they did as recently as Feb. 26, when they knocked off Indiana at home -- and some of the ugliest basketball in the country in season-ending losses to Nebraska and Purdue?

How can Minnesota, so desperate to turn a month and change of bad losses into a lasting tournament run, begin their first postseason game with a 16-point, 22-shot, 11-turnover first half? How can they get back in the game so easily and obviously, only to surrender their lead late -- allowing Brandon Paul to hit the smooth game winner that gave Illinois its 51-49 win here Thursday?

[+] EnlargeTubby Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe past six weeks have been filled with frustration for Minnesota and coach Tubby Smith.
What is it about these guys, anyway?

"That's a good question," Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe said.

"I don't know," Andre Hollins said, following a long, searching pause. "It's just … I don't know."

On one hand, it's pretty easy to explain: Minnesota is fundamentally flawed. The Gophers turn over the ball too often, and they have all season; Minnesota had the highest turnover percentage (21.3) in the Big Ten this season. Its 19 turnovers Thursday cost it early, and cost it late, leading to key opportunities for Illinois as it clawed back in the game in the closing moments. Turnovers are always bad (um, duh), but the trait is especially problematic for the Gophers, whose best feature -- their national-best offensive rebounding -- relies on them having actually attempted a shot in the first place. When that doesn't happen, which is often, the Gophers' entire offense breaks down.

And that's just the offense. Minnesota's defense, which ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points per possession allowed this season, remains a constant issue.

But a deeper question remains unanswered. How can a team with a sixth-year senior star such as Mbakwe -- and experienced, veteran players in every other role -- not improve these fatal flaws throughout a four-month season? Why does Minnesota, despite all the flashes of brilliance, still play so disjointed on both ends of the floor?

Between sighs, Gophers coach Tubby Smith ventured at an answer.

"We have been taking care of the ball better the past few games, and we tried to simplify our offense today and be more of a ball-possession type of game," Smith said. "And just like you saw, the guys fumbled the ball a little bit. I don't know what was happening."

"It kind of epitomized what we -- the way our play has been so erratic, so up-and-down, so inconsistent," Smith said.

If there is any good news in Thursday for the Gophers, it's that even despite this loss, their NCAA tournament resume is still likely to end up on the right side of the bubble; the Gophers retain a top-25 RPI, the No. 2-ranked schedule in the country (including the No. 12-ranked nonconference schedule), and wins against Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, all of which should keep them in better shape than much of the bubble -- even if Smith said his team would be sweating it out through Selection Sunday.

But that is little consolation. After all, what good is going to the tournament if you're bound to limp home after a first-round exit? Forget peaking in March. The Gophers would settle for stopping a free fall.

"I know they want to play well, they want to play together," Smith said. "We got a good group of guys. We just haven't had that take-charge, 'I got it under control, I'm in control here' type of person."

Maybe it is a lack of leadership. Or energy. Or focus. Or maybe it's just as simple as a turnover-prone, rebound-reliant offense and a mediocre defense. Whatever the answer is, Minnesota has to find it soon. Indeed, it might already be too late.

Numbers to Know: Tuesday recap

February, 27, 2013
Player of the Night - Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
Among the oldest players in college basketball, Mbakwe was 2 days old when the Gophers last beat a No. 1 team in 1989. On Tuesday, he made it happen again with a season-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds in a 77-73 win over Indiana. He’s the first Big Ten player with a 20-10 game in a win over No. 1 since Indiana’s Jared Jeffries in 2002. Meanwhile, star Hoosiers center Cody Zeller was held to just nine points before fouling out.

Scorer of the Night - Jordan McRae, Tennessee
McRae went for a game-high 27 points in the Volunteers' 64-58 win over Florida. That’s the most points for a Tennessee player against Florida since Chris Lofton in 2006. McRae is now averaging 28.0 PPG in his past three games. Tennessee has won six straight and now finds itself squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Stat Sheet Stuffer - Jerrelle Benimon, Towson
Towson has gone from 1-28 last season to 17-13 this season, and Benimon is a key reason. On Tuesday, he had 31 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in an 85-81 overtime win over George Mason. That snapped a 20-game losing streak against the Patriots. Benimon and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala are the only players averaging at least 17 PPG and 11 RPG this season.

Bench Player of the Night - Kamryn Williams, Air Force
Williams came into Tuesday averaging 2.7 PPG, but there must have been something in the thin air. He scored a career-high 25 points to go with 10 rebounds in Air Force’s 72-66 win over Wyoming. It’s the most points for a Falcon off the bench since Michael Lyons also had 25 in 2009.

Freshman of the Night – Semaj Christon, Xavier
Coming off a 10-turnover performance against VCU, Christon's ball-handling skills were understandably under scrutiny on Tuesday. But he only turned the ball over once in Xavier’s 64-62 win over Memphis. Christon finished with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists.

MINNEAPOLIS -- After their fans had stormed the floor Tuesday night and they had answered the media’s questions about Minnesota’s first victory over a No. 1 team in nearly a quarter-century, the Golden Gophers continued their celebration in the locker room.

The chorus of Canadian rapper Drake’s new single, “Started from the Bottom,” pulsated in the team’s hub in the lower level of Williams Arena, where the Gophers had just defeated No. 1 Indiana in a 77-73 upset -- the program's first over a top-ranked opponent since 1989.

“Started from the bottom, now we're here. Started from the bottom, now my whole team here.”

“Here” for Minnesota is a growing sense of assurance that Tubby Smith’s program will reach this year’s NCAA tournament, despite losing eight of 11 games prior to Tuesday’s victory.

The numbers have favored Minnesota all season. The Gophers are ranked in the top 25 of the RPI, BPI and ratings. Per the RPI, the Gophers possess the nation’s No. 1 strength of schedule. They compete in the toughest league in America.

Indiana’s overall success has contributed to the Big Ten's national standing. The Hoosiers didn’t play like the No. 1 team in America in Minneapolis. But road losses have been an issue for every team in the country -- ranked and unranked.

Indiana is still a program that’s equipped to reach Atlanta in early April and win a national title there. After the loss, however, the Hoosiers acknowledged their vulnerability.

“We just need to go to the drawing board, definitely watch film, see what we did wrong and bounce back,” said national player of the year candidate Victor Oladipo, who finished with 16 points.

But the loss could prove to be meaningless. If Indiana, a team that has won four of its past five games, finishes strong and earns a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Tuesday’s outcome might not matter.

Hoosiers coach Tom Crean didn’t seem overly concerned about the defeat.

“We just missed some opportunities,” he said.

The Gophers can relate.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Mbakwe
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidAn inspired Trevor Mbakwe had 21 points and 12 rebounds, both game highs, in Minnesota's upset.
Although they’d looked like a tournament team on paper, they’d failed to compete like a squad that deserved an at-large bid in recent outings.

Smith was so concerned with the team’s recent slide that he recently hired a sports psychologist to talk to his players.

“We all need somebody to lift us up,” Smith said.

It must have worked. The Gophers (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten) entered the game with a vigor they had lacked in recent matchups.

In the first half, they took control. But then a dominant Trevor Mbakwe went to the bench nearly 10 minutes into the game -- and Indiana launched a 10-0 run in his absence.

Oladipo hit a 3-pointer as Elliott Eliason picked up a foul off the ball with 12 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the first half. Officials deliberated but ultimately counted the shot, and Indiana retained possession. Jordan Hulls hit a jump shot and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions to give Indiana a 20-16 edge. That swing shifted the momentum in the Barn.

Leading scorer Cody Zeller finish the half without a field goal, but the Hoosiers still entered the break with a 34-30 lead. Nearly five minutes into the second half, they pulled out to a 44-36 advantage. Eliason's seven consecutive points, however, tied the game at 46 with 10:51 to go. Over the next four minutes, the Gophers continued to battle and eventually regained the lead, 55-52, with 7:22 to play.

Indiana stayed close until an Andre Hollins’ 3-pointer -- off Will Sheehey's turnover with 3:47 on the game clock -- gave Minnesota a 64-59 edge.

From there, Minnesota extended its lead to seven before Indiana (24-4, 12-3) cut that deficit to three on Hulls’ 3-pointer in the final seconds.

But the Gophers sealed the game with a steal on Indiana’s final inbounds pass.

Minnesota fans flooded the court, where they hugged players and each other in the biggest win in Smith’s tenure.

“It was crazy. It’s definitely a night to remember,” Joe Coleman said. “I don’t think too many college players get to experience something like that. I’ve never felt a heat wave like that before. All the people came in. It just got so hot and crazy.”

Crean’s team had failed to stretch its second-half lead when it had the chance.

And it couldn’t do anything with Mbakwe (21 points, 12 rebounds, a block and a steal). Zeller (2-for-9, 9 points, 7 rebounds), largely due to Mbakwe’s presence, played one of the worst games of his career.

“I love challenges like that. He’s a great player, and I was able to play pretty well,” Mbakwe said. “Obviously, when you see a matchup like that, you want to play your best.”

Added Crean: “That’s a grown man that’s one of the best rebounders in this country, certainly in our league. And he was the toughest guy on the court today.”

Unlike past years, the Gophers might be worry-free on Selection Sunday. But Smith said he doesn’t want his team to become overconfident.

“The emotional part of it, getting too high and too low. ... That’s what happens to you sometimes,” Smith said. “You can have a false sense of accomplishment. I was just more matter-of-fact and said, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta get busy for tomorrow. We’ve got practice tomorrow.’”

Crean could have said the same thing to his team.

Minnesota beats No. 1 Indiana on inside

February, 26, 2013
The Minnesota Golden Gophers beat the No. 1 team in the country Tuesday for the first time since 1989, and just the fourth time in school history, by defeating the Indiana Hoosiers, 77-73.

All four of those victories have come at home and the Gophers were unranked for each. Minnesota improves to 5-5 against ranked teams this season -- Indiana, Wisconsin and Georgetown are the only other teams with at least five wins against ranked opponents.

Minnesota did its damage on the inside, pulling down 23 offensive rebounds, the most by a team in a win over the No. 1 team since Massachusetts grabbed 28 against North Carolina on Nov. 24, 1993.

The Gophers scored 40 points in the paint and racked up 21 second-chance points, far above what Indiana has allowed on average this season.

Minnesota senior forward Trevor Mbakwe scored a season-high 21 points and added 12 rebounds, his third career 20-point game and his ninth double-double this season.

He’s just the sixth player in Big Ten history with 20 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the No. 1 team in the country, and the first since Indiana’s Jared Jeffries in March 2002.

Cody Zeller, Indiana's leading scorer, had just nine points and fouled out for only the second time in his career.

Indiana lost for the third time this season as the No. 1 team, the first team to do that three time in the regular season since Duke in 2005-06. The bad news is that none of the previous 15 teams to lose at least three times as the No. 1 team went on to win the title that same season.

MINNEAPOLIS -- A few quick thoughts on Minnesota’s 77-73 victory over No. 1 Indiana at Williams Arena on Tuesday night. It was Minnesota’s first win over a No. 1 team since 1989 (Illinois on Jan. 26, 1989).

Overview: With NBA scouts in attendance, senior Trevor Mbakwe looked like a pro in the first half. He scored 12 points (shooting 5-for-7) as the Gophers stopped Indiana from entering the break with a big lead. A huge momentum swing changed the first half for the Gophers with 12 minutes, 46 seconds remaining.

Victor Oladipo hit a 3-pointer as Minnesota's Elliott Eliason was called for a foul off the ball. Officials deliberated before deciding that the shot counted. Indiana retained possession and Jordan Hulls hit a jump shot. Hulls then made a 3-pointer on the Hoosiers' next possession.

The Hulls triple capped off a 10-0 rally for Indiana. The Gophers were up 16-10 when Mbakwe went to the bench; Indiana had a 20-16 edge by the time he returned.

The Hoosiers entered the second half with a 34-30 lead -- and without a field goal from leading scorer Cody Zeller (0-for-4).

The back-and-forth pace continued after intermission. The Hoosiers took a 44-36 lead with 15:43 to play. But with about seven minutes to go, they were down 56-52 following Mbakwe’s three-point play.

Turning point: The game was filled with turning points. The Gophers took an early lead. Indiana bounced back. The Hoosiers seized an advantage early in the second half. Minnesota closed the gap.

The game really turned toward the end.

Austin Hollins' three-point play gave Minnesota a 61-59 edge with 4:36 to play. Then, the Gophers converted a turnover by Will Sheehey on Indiana’s next possession into an Andre Hollins 3-pointer on the other end.

A Christian Watford 3 in the final minute cut Minnesota’s lead to four points (70-66). He hit another 3-pointer with 43.9 seconds to go. But the Gophers held on. Even though they maintained their lead, Hulls' 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds to play reduced Minnesota’s edge to 76-73.

Andre Hollins was fouled on the inbounds pass. And the sophomore hit one of two free throws to extend Minnesota’s lead to the final margin of four. The Gophers intercepted Indiana’s inbounds pass to seal the victory.

Key player: Eliason scored seven consecutive points during a second-half stretch that kept Minnesota (19-9, 7-8 Big Ten) alive with Mbakwe on the bench due to foul trouble. Those were his only points, but obviously crucial. Then there’s Mbakwe. The senior led the way from start to finish (21 points, 12 rebounds, a block and a steal).

Key stat: The Gophers won despite shooting 4-for-20 from the 3-point line.

Next up: The Gophers will face Penn State on Saturday. Indiana (24-4, 12-3) will host Iowa the same day.

MINNEAPOLIS – On Thursday night, Rodney Williams grimaced as he held his left shoulder.

With his team facing a deficit in the second half of a 58-53 overtime victory against No. 20 Wisconsin at Williams Arena, the senior tried to ignore the pain of an injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's loss to Illinois.

Williams has nearly exhausted his tomorrows. And his team needs him now.

So when he aggravated the shoulder injury in the second half, he did not put on his warm-ups and tell his coaches he couldn’t go. He just went to the team’s trainer and asked for ibuprofen and a glass of water. A few minutes later, he checked back into the game.

“I just wanted to go out there and fight for my teammates,” said Williams, who sported a cantaloupe-sized ice pack on his left shoulder following the victory.

His teammates channeled the same attitude against the Badgers. Finally, the Gophers played with a hunger they’ve tapped during stretches throughout the season. It’s a resilience they lacked during a period that included six losses in eight games.

After a rough first half Thursday night, the Gophers pushed the pace against a Wisconsin team that’s accustomed to controlling the tempo.

Williams scored on a tip-in, drew a foul and hit the free throw with 14 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in regulation. That sequence tied the game at 33. A pair of Andre Hollins free throws gave Minnesota its first lead, 35-33, on its next possession. A Trevor Mbakwe dunk put the Gophers up after Wisconsin pulled back even.

[+] EnlargeRodney Williams
Marilyn Indahl/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota's Rodney Williams, sore shoulder and all, slams home a pair of his 10 points.
But the Badgers, up 49-47 late, regained the edge and nearly sealed the game in the final seconds of regulation after Mike Bruesewitz drew an offensive foul on Austin Hollins with 22 seconds to go. On the next play, however, Bruesewitz committed a turnover on the inbounds.

Sophomore Joe Coleman was fouled, and he hit the free throws to tie the game at 49-49 with 17.4 seconds to go.

Yet, the teams' second game nearly ended like their first. In the Jan. 26 meeting in Madison, Traevon Jackson hit the game winner with 4 seconds to play in a 45-44 victory for the Badgers. Jackson had the ball again Thursday on his team’s final possession.

But it was a messy finish that concluded regulation as Jackson’s last-second shot clanked off the backboard.

By then, the Gophers had already recaptured the night. The Badgers failed to record a field goal after Ben Brust’s jumper with 6:18 to play in regulation until Jared Berggren’s layup with 10 seconds remaining in overtime.

“It started on defense,” said Mbakwe. “We got a lot of key stops at the end. We made Wisconsin play our tempo a little bit and that’s kind of hard, especially against a team like that.”

In overtime, Andre Hollins hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3:40 to go and blew a kiss to the crowd. Mbawke, a 62 percent free throw shooter entering the game, hit a pair on Minnesota’s following possession to give the Gophers a 54-49 lead with 1:32 left. The teams traded free throws down the stretch but the Badgers (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) couldn’t secure the shots necessary to overcome the Gophers’ late push.

“We just kept being aggressive, kept being aggressive on defense,” Coleman said. “We try to make the least amount of mistakes possible, and I think we really focused in on that at the end of the game … it helped going into overtime. We were playing so aggressive and it helped.”

Hollins led all scorers with 21 points. As a team, the Gophers (eight turnovers) held the Badgers (10-for-17 from the free throw line) to a 30.5 percent shooting clip in arguably their most significant Big Ten matchup of the year.

The pressure has become palpable in Minneapolis.

The Gophers (18-7, 6-6) have fallen in the Big Ten standings and lost their national ranking. Tubby Smith’s job status has been questioned by local media. Earlier this week, the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan wrote a column titled “If Tubby can’t turn this around, it’s time to get [Shaka] Smart.”

“The sky was falling around here. Sometimes when the sky is falling and you’re lying under the ceiling, you think it’s going to cave in on you,” Smith said after the game. “They wanted it, but we had to have it. That was the key tonight.”

“Desperate” is a term that’s frequently used to describe the condition of any college basketball team that’s struggling in mid-February.

The bubble is big. And the subjective process of a selection committee that consults stats, standings, RPI figures and overall resumes to determine the teams that will earn 37 at-large slots on Selection Sunday, fuels paranoia.

Are we in or are we out?

The Gophers seemed desperate entering Thursday's game. But most of their recent losses came in matchups against ranked Big Ten teams. So they maintained a top-20 RPI.

They’re not Illinois or Villanova or Baylor.

But the expectation for 2012-13 is not an at-large bid. The expectation is an at-large bid and a few wins.

Smith has not won an NCAA tournament matchup in his six seasons with the Gophers.

“We don’t listen to too much on the outside,” Mbakwe said. “I know a lot of people were high on us. We [lost] down the stretch and people were like, ‘This is the same old Minnesota team.’”

Winning is the only elixir for that perception.

Thursday’s victory was a good start.

But it certainly won’t cure the pain of a program that’s feigned progress in the past.
Earlier today, I wrote about the eventful day in the Big East, as Villanova upset No. 3 Syracuse and Louisville dropped its third in a row in a loss at Georgetown. Here are a few other afternoon thoughts from around the college hoops landscape:

1. Kentucky does not look like a tournament team. Unless the tournament in question is the NIT.

I know, I know: A win is a win, and Kentucky held on for a 75-70 home victory over LSU on Saturday. And I know: There's still some time left for this young Kentucky team to figure it all out. But it's clear, at least right now, that the Wildcats have some pretty significant flaws, flaws that could put their already tenuous tournament position in even greater jeopardy the rest of the way.

Chief among them? Defense. The Wildcats had allowed .97 points per possession in SEC play prior to Saturday, seventh-best in a league that most certainly does not house seven good teams. (Maybe three.) It ranked last in the league in forced-turnover rate, and it had allowed SEC opponents to grab 32.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, 10th-best in the conference. These same flaws were apparent Saturday, too. Kentucky scored efficiently throughout the game; it shot 52 percent from the field and a tidy 61 percent from inside the arc (it shot 11 3-pointers and made just two). And still the Wildcats allowed the Tigers -- a 10-7 team with a 1-5 SEC record and the 209th-ranked offense in the country, per -- to put up 70 points at Rupp Arena, to push for a game-tying play until the final possession, to make Ashley Judd a nervous wreck on live television.

Kentucky began the week with a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket, and that sounds about right, but that was before Tuesday's loss at Alabama. If I had to bet on UK making it to the tournament or not this season, I'd take the former option. But if it can't get at least some separation from the worst teams in its own down league at home, John Calipari's team will find itself at serious risk of missing the tournament just 11 months after winning it all. Heck, that risk is already here.

2. Minnesota's losses are starting to pile up. Lose at Indiana? No big deal -- you're supposed to lose at Indiana. Lose at home to Michigan? Not preferable, but hey, Michigan's really good. Lose a low-scoring game at Wisconsin? Welcome to the last decade of Big Ten play, right?

Taken separately, none of those three losses -- the latest of which came today, 45-44 in Madison -- is cause for overwhelming concern. But taken alongside Minnesota's 55-48 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, it's no wonder why Gophers fans are starting to freak out. Saturday's result makes for four consecutive losses in Big Ten play. That would be bad enough, but the methods by which these losses have come have been a product of both bad defense (Indiana and Michigan scored a combined 1.24 points per possession) and bad offense (the Gophers were held to just .84 points per trip against Northwestern and Wisconsin) -- a veritable sampler pack of ways to lose Big Ten games.

Even worse? Forward Trevor Mbakwe reinjured his wrist on the final play Saturday, which forced forward Rodney Williams to take the game-deciding free throws, the last of which he clanged. If that injury causes Mbakwe to miss games, the Gophers, who rely so much on offensive rebounds, could lose their best rebounder and interior scorer. You never want to encourage panic in January, not for a team this good anyway. But if Minnesota fans start freaking out ... well, you can understand where they're coming from, at least.

3. Duke had a "program win" over Maryland. That's what guard Quinn Cook called Duke's 84-64 win over the Terps on Saturday afternoon, and whether you're willing to go that far or not, the fact of the matter is that Duke rebounded from its unsightly 90-63 thrashing at Miami -- during which the Hurricanes slapped the floor defensively, openly (and comedically) taunting Duke in the second half of a blowout -- with gusto. The freshmen led the way, particularly shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, and that is excellent news for a team that needs other contributors to step up as Ryan Kelly recovers from the foot injury that has kept him out of Duke's lineup for much of January. More than anything, though, Saturday's bounce-back victory showed that the Blue Devils' horrific Wednesday night wasn't necessarily the sign of a larger decline. If anything, it was a sign of just how good Miami really is.

4. Iowa State got a huge win over Kansas State. Late January is not too early for a fan base to be concerned with its bubble team's prospective position, and right now it seems like it's the only thing many basketball fans in Iowa -- both fans of Iowa and Iowa State -- can talk about. The Cyclones will have other opportunities to get big résumé wins in Big 12 play, but they took advantage of a major one when they toppled No. 11-ranked Kansas State 73-67. Led by Will Clyburn's 24 points and 10 boards, the Cyclones shot 64 percent in the second half, hoisting up 47 points on a good K-State defense. In Bubble Land, these are the kind of games -- against good but beatable teams at home -- you have to take advantage of. For Iowa State, which suffered a horrible loss at Texas Tech on Wednesday night, it was just what the doctor ordered.

[+] EnlargeJahii Carson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsASU's Jahii Carson drives to the basket on his way to a 12-point, 8-assist effort against UCLA.
5. It's time to pay attention to Arizona State. This is not the first time we've said as much about Jahii Carson and the Sun Devils* this season, but it is the first time Herb Sendek's team has backed it up with a quality win.

Just last week, as Arizona State prepared to play rival Arizona in its own building, we all perked up, forced to pay attention to a team with a 14-3 record -- coming off a three-point loss at Oregon -- hosting its hated in-state rival at home. Naturally, Arizona proceeded to stomp Carson & Co., and it was just as easy to discard Arizona State once more. After all, who had the Sun Devils actually beaten? Arkansas? Colorado at home? Meh. Meh.

Not anymore. Arizona State's 78-60 win over UCLA on Saturday eliminates wipes away that dismissive disclaimer. It's a good win in its own right, but it's made doubly impressive by the fact that UCLA is coming off its own uber-impressive victory Thursday night at Arizona. Maybe the Bruins were tired. They certainly looked it. But it would be folly to take any credit away from ASU, which was led by a 40-minute performance from Carson (who has more 20-point games than any other ASU freshman in school history, save James Harden and Ike Diogu), a 22-point, 15-rebound performance (on 10-of-12 shooting, no less) from center Jordan Bachynski and a defensive performance that held hot-shooting UCLA to just 25-of-72 from the field (and just 5-of-24 from 3).

The win moves Arizona State to 16-4 and 5-2 in the Pac-12, a stunning turnaround from the depths the program sank into in 2011-12. Sendek has turned things around quickly, and it would be a mistake to dismiss Carson and friends anymore.

*Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good name for a band.

Bonus features:

  • San Diego State was at risk of falling off the MWC title radar after two straight losses -- the first to UNLV at home, the second a 58-45 defeat at Wyoming. "Falling off" isn't this program's M.O. these days, so it was fair to expect the Aztecs to come out strong at home against New Mexico. What I didn't expect was New Mexico to struggle so mightily on the offensive end, scoring just 34 points in the loss. Both sides played some ugly offense, but 34 points? Really?
  • Oh, speaking of which, want to hear about the worst half of offensive basketball in the history of Division I? I thought you might! This afternoon, Northern Illinois trailed Eastern Michigan 18-4 at the half. It shot 1-for-31 from the field and finished the half with 29 straight misses. In the process, according to ESPN Stats & Information, NIU broke Division I records for fewest points (4) and lowest field goal percentage (3.2 percent) in a half and tied the all-time record for fewest field goals in a half (1). Yeah. It was that bad. Searching for a positive angle, the NIU press release on the game lead with: "Northern Illinois posted its best defensive effort in seven seasons, allowing just 42 points on Saturday afternoon, but it came in a losing effort as the Huskies fell to Eastern Michigan, 42-25, at the EMU Convocation Center." Sure, we scored only 25 points -- but at least we played great defense! Silver linings!
  • A couple of months ago, we might have expected Memphis to struggle with Marshall; before the season, the Thundering Herd, who barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season, were the only obvious challenger in Conference USA. But with all of Marshall's struggles -- the Herd are 9-11 with losses to South Dakota State, Hofstra, West Virginia, Delaware State and UTEP -- Memphis' squeaky one-point home victory is little more than an artful bad-loss dodge.
  • George Washington pounded Charlotte 82-54 at home, moving to 4-2 in Atlantic 10 play, including a one-possession loss to Temple on Jan. 16. Not a team anyone in the A-10 should want to play right now, those Colonials.
  • Marquette's win over Providence was delayed by the invasion of a single bat. Make of this new knowledge what you will.

Loss leaves Gophers grasping for answers

January, 18, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota can no longer blame injuries and defections for the Golden Gophers' sudden issues.

Blaming the competition doesn't fly, either.

Minnesota probably shouldn't win at Indiana (Wisconsin did) or beat Michigan at home (Ohio State did). But the Gophers are no longer the Gophers from the past two seasons, when issues dogged the team.

Yet, the convincing Jan. 9 victory at Illinois was followed up by flops in the first halves at Indiana and then again Thursday against Michigan. The Gophers had chances to come back in both games, playing to their strengths by getting rebounds, spreading the floor, causing turnovers and making shots.

But it was too late in both games and now, after the 83-75 loss to the No. 5 Wolverines, the Gophers are 3-2 in the Big Ten and looking up at not just Michigan and Indiana, but also Michigan State, Ohio State and 4-0 Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeTim Hardaway Jr., Austin Hollins
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesAustin Hollins couldn't keep up with Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. most of the night in Minnesota's loss.
"I'm disappointed," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith. "Usually we respond much better. I don't know what happened."

The ninth-ranked Gophers dug themselves a huge hole against the Wolverines, much as they did against the Hoosiers. Turnovers dogged Minnesota early and often; so, too, did missed free throws. Oh, and the inability to even cover Tim Hardaway Jr., let alone Trey Burke -- arguably one of the best backcourts in the country -- led to a 19-point deficit at one point.

"We can't be digging these holes like we do," said Minnesota's Rodney Williams, who fouled out after scoring 11 points. "We can't be out there and not be on the same page."

Williams said Hardaway made tough shots in the first half, and that Austin Hollins did a good job contesting them. But over the course of the game, the Gophers couldn't stand in front of Burke or Hardaway, unlike Ohio State on Sunday. There was no Aaron Craft defending Burke, and certainly no one face-guarding Hardaway as well as possible.

Hardaway finished with 21 points; Burke had 18 points, 9 assists and just 1 turnover. Burke played 36 minutes -- and would have played more had he not ripped his shirt. The Gophers committed 15 turnovers and many turned into Wolverines points -- the most embarrassing of which Glenn Robinson III finished off with a 360-degree dunk.

"We're turning the ball over too much," said Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe. "They scored 22 points off turnovers. We got off to a slow start and it killed the momentum [from the second-half comeback at Indiana]. We've got to figure out a way to take care of the ball."

Look, the Gophers have lost only to elite teams -- to Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis and now to Indiana in Bloomington and Michigan at home. If those are the worst losses the Gophers suffer, they'll be just fine. But there are concerns in the way the Gophers suffered the two most recent defeats.

This team still can contend. But the players cannot point fingers, get frustrated or get out of sync too often.

"We know the winner of the Big Ten is going to have two or three losses," said Mbakwe. "It's too early. You've got to take care of your home game and win all of your home games. Everyone has a loss in the Big Ten except Wisconsin. Hopefully, when we go there next week [after a road game at Northwestern] we can hand them a loss. We still believe we have a chance to win the Big Ten."
Thursday’s matchup between No. 9 Minnesota and No. 5 Michigan at the Barn in Minneapolis will feature two of the best teams in the Big Ten. Both squads, however, are coming off weekend road losses (Minnesota to Indiana, Michigan to Ohio State) that commendable surges in the second half of their respective games failed to turn in their favor. They share a hunger for a win against a member of the league’s elite as they enter the second quarter of the Big Ten season.

Here are five elements that will determine the final result:
  1. Trey Burke's playmaking ability -- The last time the two teams met, Burke dropped 30 points in a 73-69 overtime win over the Gophers in the Big Ten tournament last March. He was unstoppable. This season, he leads a Michigan team that’s first in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. The Wolverines, largely due to Burke, are also second in turnover rate. But in Michigan’s loss at Ohio State, Aaron Craft harassed Burke and disrupted the Wolverines’ entire offense as a result. The Gophers (seventh in steals percentage, 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency) have to mimic that effort. And without a player who possesses Craft’s defensive tools, they’ll need multiple guys to clog Burke’s path to the basket, guard against the kick-out pass when he penetrates and contest his shots. But that’s never an easy task against a player with Burke’s tools.
  2. Trevor Mbakwe's impact -- Last year, the Gophers lost to the Wolverines by five points and four points in two matchups. Mbakwe missed both games due to an ACL injury. In the nonconference portion of the 2012-13 season, Mbakwe didn’t look like an NBA prospect or a former all-Big Ten performer. But he’s resembled the player who led the Big Ten in rebounding in 2010-11 in recent weeks. He’s finished with double-doubles in three of Minnesota’s four Big Ten games. Michigan’s Mitch McGary is still raw. Jordan Morgan is a solid defender, but Mbakwe can overpower both players inside. And that’s what the Gophers will need from the sixth-year senior to get the win. Mbakwe could be the X factor in this matchup if he’s a force inside.
  3. Michigan’s 3-point shooting -- The Wolverines are 12th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (40.4), one of the reasons they have the most efficient offense in the country. With the 3-ball, they can spread defense. And that’s a problem for opponents because they’re stacked with playmakers, too. Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III will exploit those gaps. The Gophers were down by 23 points at halftime in Saturday’s loss at Indiana in part because the Hoosiers were 7-for-11 from the 3-point line in the first half. That’s why it’s so important for the Gophers to play the perimeter early. And it’s equally important for John Beilein’s squad to hit those shots in the first half to create offensive space that his team didn’t have on Saturday against Ohio State (6-for-20 from 3-point line).
  4. First-half efforts -- Both teams spent the second half of their most recent losses clawing back into the game after halftime. And they were both praised for their efforts. But they were exhausted down the stretch because they’d exerted so much energy cutting into their respective deficits. The Wolverines and Gophers could face similar circumstances if slow starts are an issue on Thursday. Both programs showcased their strength when they nearly closed the gaps in their weekend matchups. But it’s tough to escape those early ditches.
  5. Andre Hollins -- Hollins provided a glimpse of his potential in that Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan last season. The sophomore guard (14.4 ppg, 3.6 apg, 43 percent from 3-point line and 1.4 spg in 2012-13) scored 21 points that day. This year, he’s put up all-Big Ten numbers and matured into a young leader of this Minnesota squad. According to Minnesota’s coaching staff, Hollins marked this matchup a long time ago. He wants to test himself against arguably the best point guard in the country. Burke is Michigan’s solution in tight games. He’s one of the country’s top playmakers. But Hollins will have to play that role for Minnesota on Thursday. This matchup could be decided by star power.

Weekend Watch: Minnesota-Indiana preview

January, 11, 2013
Editor's note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. This week, it’s the Big Ten matchup between No. 8 Minnesota and No. 5 Indiana at noon ET on Saturday.

Game overview: Minnesota is coming off a victory at Illinois in which the Golden Gophers shot 9-of-15 from 3-point range, scored in transition and took the ball inside against the Illini. Tubby Smith has a good defensive team that plays primarily half-court man-to-man (although Minnesota does press, mostly after free throws). The Gophers pressure the ball, contest passes on the perimeter and close out well on shooters while still taking away drives. This team loves to get out on the break, but does not force a lot of turnovers or rely upon steals, and loves to get the ball inside via post passes and drives. The Gophers have shot the ball well, but the primary deep threats are Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, the only two players on the roster who have hit more than 10 3s on the season. But what Minnesota may do best is hit the offensive glass and get second shots. Trevor Mbakwe and the super-athletic Rodney Williams are both averaging around 3 offensive rebounds per game. Williams has been playing the power-forward slot and has been having his best season. Minnesota leads the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 48.5 percent. The Gophers are deep, play hard together, are finally healthy and at full strength, and expect to win.

The Hoosiers are an outstanding offensive team and an underappreciated defensive unit. Indiana gets up and down the floor better than Minnesota, especially Cody Zeller, who runs the floor better than any college big man. The Hoosiers are balanced, with five guys who average between 11.1 and 16.5 points per game, and shoot better than 51 percent from the floor as a team. Indiana does a great job using ball screens and finding opportunities to cut to the basket or the 3-point line. It all starts with Zeller, whose running game drags the defense toward the baseline and provides opportunities for others. Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey provide versatility and toughness and freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell has improved game by game. Indiana has several players who can hit a 3 -- but two whom you must find in transition and cannot leave, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford.

[+] EnlargeAndre Hollins
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesShooting at a 43.3 percent clip, sophomore Andre Hollins is Minnesota's top 3-point threat.
Indiana’s best player: Cody Zeller. The third of the Zeller brothers is the most efficient big man in the country, and is the Hoosiers’ best scorer, defensive rebounder, offensive rebounder and most efficient player. Zeller averages 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds on 62.7 percent shooting, and takes just over 8 shots per game. Zeller does not turn the ball over and gets to the free-throw line. While he could clearly be a better defensive rebounder and more assertive and look to take over on the offensive end, this team does not win without Zeller. Since his arrival in Bloomington, the Hoosiers are 41-10.

Minnesota’s best player: Andre Hollins. He is a scoring point guard who has only been playing the position for a few years. Hollins was a scoring guard in high school, playing in the same backcourt with Memphis guard Joe Jackson. He is Minnesota’s primary handler and top assist man, but he is also an attacking guard who loves to get past defenders to explode into a shot or get to the rim. Hollins has shot more free throws than any Gopher but Mbakwe, and is a streaky 3-point shooter who has hit 29 triples on the season. Hollins is also a terrific defender who is very good pressuring the ball.

Indiana X factor: Victor Oladipo. The dynamic wing is having an outstanding season, and he can be plugged into almost any role on the floor. Oladipo is nothing but energy and activity, and can guard anyone from a point guard to a four, and can keep primary offensive options from catching it where they want. He is relentless in going to the glass, going after loose balls and making momentum plays in transition. Oladipo is averaging 13.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.1 offensive rebounds and 2.2 steals, while shooting 67 percent from the field.

Minnesota X-factor: Trevor Mbakwe. Mbakwe is older and more mature, and is incredibly strong around the goal. He is hard to move off his spot, and is an outstanding rebounder at both ends. Mbakwe has huge hands and is among the best offensive rebounders in the country. Indiana cannot allow Mbakwe to get angles in the post and must make him run and guard ball screens at every opportunity.

Key stats: Turnovers and offensive rebounds. Both teams are good defensively, and an important factor will be second shots. Minnesota gets more of them than any team in America, but can also give them up. Indiana has two outstanding offensive rebounders in Zeller and Oladipo. In addition, Minnesota has to take care of the ball. The Gophers are rated 254th in the country in turnover percentage.

Who wins: This is a big-time game between two teams that can beat anybody. Indiana is at home, where it plays its best and has been difficult to beat. I favor Indiana to win, 76-72.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It is super psyched about conference play.

No. 8 Minnesota at No. 12 Illinois, 9 p.m. ET, BTN: I love this time of year. We're off and running with all-out conference play -- the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West finally get down to business tonight, and we get to start learning a lot about those very fascinating leagues -- while the Big Ten, which has been going at it for more than a week (and two games each) already, is still early enough in the game that we can't be remotely sure how everything is going to pan out. This is especially true of Illinois.

To wit: Before Big Ten play began, most of us -- heck, even most optimistic Illinois fans -- assumed that Illinois would come crashing back down to Earth sooner rather than later. The Illini had a nice nonconference season. First-year coach John Groce changed their offense, Brandon Paul put it all together, the team got hot and shot and made a bunch of 3s, but surely that model wasn't sustainable, was it? Surely the poor-rebounding, so-so-defending Illini were destined to live and die by that long-range shot, and that would be the story of their season.

After Saturday's victory over Ohio State, I'm not so sure. The Illini got the benefit of home court and a horrendous shooting performance by the Buckeyes, but even so, they rebounded 77.5 percent of their available defensive boards. Paul said after the game that was Groce's biggest focus in practice -- Groce knew his team was among the worst in the Big Ten at keeping opponents off the glass, and he had to correct it. And, at least for one game, he did.

That makes tonight's home game against Minnesota totally fascinating. A week ago, you might have said the Illini had a small chance against the Gophers, primarily because Minnesota is the single best offensive rebounding team in the country, and Illinois can't keep anyone off the glass. And that might still happen; Illinois hasn't met anyone like Trevor Mbakwe yet, and it's entirely possible Minnesota's balance, athleticism and ability to chase down its own misses make the key difference in a tough Big Ten road game. But we now at least have to allow for the possibility that (a) Illinois has the ability to rebound the ball well against good teams, at least at home, and (b) the shape of Illinois's abilities, and thus its season, could be so much more than the 3-point shot.

No. 24 UNLV at No. 25 New Mexico, 10 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: In the past five years, the Mountain West has become one of my favorite leagues to watch, and not just because the basketball is typically really entertaining. It's because everybody's hungry.

UNLV is a traditional power whose fans are desperate to rekindle the glamorous glory days. San Diego State is a sudden and heretofore-unseen beast whose relatively young student section (The Show) might also be the country's best. (San Diego State fans are scrappy. They have no interest in your codified college hoops hierarchy; earlier this season, they took immense pride in beating UCLA, outnumbering its fans in the Honda Center, and trash-talking for weeks afterward. Naturally, I think they're fantastic.) New Mexico's Pit is a brutal, intense place to play; coach Steve Alford has redeemed his career within its confines. These are fan bases and programs that have long existed outside the world's hoops attention, but they've seized it back -- all together, almost at once.

This has been the case consistently in recent seasons; what makes this year different is the league's sheer depth. Boise State won at Creighton in November; Wyoming is one of the country's last four unbeaten teams. Colorado State returned basically everyone from last season's NCAA tournament visit, and are playing even better basketball this time around. We could very well get six NCAA tournament teams out of this league. The Pac-12 probably would settle for four.

All of which is a way of saying that this game, even though it's an early January conference opener, is huge for both teams. For UNLV, it's a chance to correct the defensive woes that cost them a road loss at North Carolina before the New Year, a chance for brilliant star freshman Anthony Bennett to get his MWC feet wet in one of the toughest places in the country to do so, and it's a chance to steal an early victory from a legit conference title contender on its own floor. For New Mexico, it's a chance to bounce back from a road loss at St. Louis last week and a chance to open the league season with a win over a very talented but very green title favorite.

For the rest of us, it's a first look at what this fantastic conference is going to be all about this season. Frankly, I can't wait.

Elsewhere: The A-10 is also kicking things off tonight, and Butler at Saint Joseph's is an awfully good way to start. The veteran Hawks were picked to win the league but have really flailed since; this would be a really handy way to turn things around. … Iowa State travels to Kansas, and while the Cyclones are almost certainly underrated (they really defend), it's hard to see how they get out of Lawrence with a win. … The Big East's two favorites both have eminently winnable games on the road, as Louisville goes to Seton Hall and Syracuse sojourns to Providence. … Don't sleep on Ole Miss. It'll be ugly going at Tennessee, but the Rebels' only two losses this season came by a combined five points. They could be an SEC sleeper. … It's conference madness out there tonight, so be sure to stop by for our ESPN Home Court live chat this evening, and see here for a full schedule of tonight's games. Enjoy, you silver-tongued devils, you.
1. Colorado coach Tad Boyle did follow up with Ed Rush, the Pac-12 coordinator of basketball officials, after last Thursday's controversial overtime victory for Arizona. Rush publicly defended the officials' call on overturning Sabatino Chen's 3-pointer at the buzzer. Rush did the same thing privately to Boyle. But Boyle said Rush admitted the officials didn't get a substitution call correct with under two minutes to go in the game. Arizona was allowed to sub in but Colorado wasn't, according to Boyle. That allowed a mismatch with Josh Scott on Solomon Hill, who ended up making a 3-pointer to cut CU's lead to five with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining in regulation. Boyle said there was no hangover for the Buffs when they lost two days later at Arizona State. But he said this week's homestand should provide a great atmosphere, with USC and UCLA coming to Boulder. CU needs these wins to be a contender.

2. Lehigh coach Dr. Brett Reed said during our ESPNU podcast Monday morning that a decision still needs to be made about whether to surgically place a pin in C.J. McCollum's broken foot. He said every precaution is being taken since no one wants to mess with the senior guard's possible NBA career. I didn't get the sense that Reed is fully expecting McCollum to return anytime soon; to project that he might not come back this season wouldn't be a reach. Meanwhile, McCollum said the Mountain Hawks cannot panic. You can tell Reed is up for the challenge of trying to beat Bucknell in the Patriot League without McCollum.

3. Minnesota's Tubby Smith also joined us on the Monday podcast and said his team is ready for the gauntlet of at Illinois, at Indiana and home to Michigan. He said the squad finally being healthy is a major reason why the Gophers have turned around their program. Smith also has a scoring lead guard in Andre Hollins, Trevor Mbakwe is fully engaged in the team concept and Rodney Williams is playing his natural power-forward position.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Following ninth-ranked Minnesota’s 76-63 win over No. 18 Michigan State in Monday’s Big Ten opener for both teams, Trevor Mbakwe sat by his locker and exhaled.

His left hand rested on his left knee, which is stamped with a four-inch scar surgeons left when they repaired an injury he suffered his freshman year at Marquette.

With his right hand, he cradled a large bag of ice that covered his other knee, therapeutic for a young man who tore his right ACL just over a year ago.

But the brace he’d worn all season as he recovered from his most recent setback, one that ruined his 2011-12 season, was gone. Prior to Monday’s win -- Mbakwe finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal -- he persuaded team doctors to let him play without it for the first time this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Mbakwe
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports Trevor Mbakwe, playing without a knee brace for the first time this season, caused problems for the Spartans on both ends of the floor.
Mbakwe said he was motivated by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 199 yards in a 37-34 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, a year after tearing his ACL.

“I’m moving pretty good; I felt good playing without it. … Adrian Peterson’s inspirational game yesterday, it made me feel pretty good,” he said. “My knee’s feeling great. Just in the two months, I feel a big difference between when the season first started until now. … I’m definitely more aggressive now. I don’t even think about it anymore. It was a big step getting rid of the brace. The docs were kind of hesitant at first, but I told them I believed in it.”

Mbakwe was finally free. So he went after loose balls he’d only thought about fighting for last month. He crashed into Michigan State forward Derrick Nix (5-for-15) and wrestled the big man for rebounds and putbacks. He jumped without fear.

“Any time you can have Trevor out there at full health, you know it’s going to be trouble for the other team,” said Minnesota’s Rodney Williams, who finished with 15 points.

Mbakwe was the emotional guide for a Gophers squad that just cracked the AP poll’s top 10 for the first time since 1997 (officially 1982 because that 1996-97 season was later vacated).

He urged the crowd to cheer after Michigan State launched an 11-0 run that turned a seven-point Minnesota advantage into a four-point deficit midway through the second half. He pounded on his chest. He taunted Spartans with smiles and screams. He encouraged a young Minnesota squad with his spirit.

“He’s coming back to the old Trevor we know,” said UM sophomore Joe Coleman, who had eight points, three assists and three steals.

Minnesota held a 17-16 lead with 11:54 remaining in the first half, but a 20-9 run gave the Gophers a 37-25 lead with 4:53 left in the half.

Then Big Ten play began.

Tubby Smith had shown his team video of old Mike Tyson fights prior to Monday’s game. It set the tone for the battle the Gophers and Spartans staged after halftime.

In the past, many Minnesota teams coached by Smith had failed to respond when pressured by Michigan State. But Mbakwe helped this young squad keep its poise after MSU closed the gap to 39-38 by halftime, a comeback anchored by a 10-0 rally. The two teams traded runs -- and momentum -- in the second half until the Gophers held a 64-63 lead with 3:50 to go.

Andre Hollins (22 points, six assists) darted to the left side of the court and hit a 12-foot off-balance jump shot to extend Minnesota’s lead with 2:50 to play. That clutch play kicked off a 12-0 game-sealing run for Minnesota, which shot 55.6 percent from the field.

The Gophers, who earned Smith’s first regular-season win over the Spartans as Minnesota’s head coach, also forced 14 turnovers against an MSU squad that missed 8 of 10 free throws.

Bottom line: Minnesota was the tougher team. When asked about overall effort, the Spartans talked about Mbakwe’s impact more than Hollins’.

“He caused us a whole lot of problems, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end as well,” said Michigan State’s Keith Appling, who led his team with 15 points. “The past films we watched, he hasn’t been this active.”

Mbakwe had been so cautious with his right knee that he has come off the bench most of the season. But he recently returned to the team’s starting rotation.

Physical damage has affected Mbakwe throughout his six years -- he missed 2009-10 because of legal issues after transferring from a junior college, and he received a medical redshirt after missing most of last year with the knee injury.

But other wounds, some self-inflicted, have threatened his career too.

An offseason arrest for drunken driving was one of a handful of legal incidents the former all-Big Ten forward has had to address in his time as a college basketball player.

Mbakwe admitted that his most recent arrest and knee injury made it difficult to envision a performance comparable to Monday’s as he pondered the 2012-13 campaign throughout the offseason.

He didn’t know if the knee would allow him to do the things that led many to believe he was an NBA prospect last season. And he wasn’t sure if the legal system would offer him another chance.

“A couple months ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be playing here,” he said. “I didn’t know what my future was going to be. It’s been an emotional roller coaster, these last few years. I’m just happy. I couldn’t ask for a better win.”

Video: Minnesota 70, North Dakota St. 57

December, 11, 2012
Trevor Mbakwe had 14 points and 18 rebounds as 13th-ranked Minnesota improved to 11-1 with a 70-57 victory over North Dakota State.

Hollins nets 41 as Minnesota tops Memphis

November, 23, 2012

NASSAU, Bahamas -- When Andre Hollins returns to his native Memphis next month for Christmas, the Minnesota guard may want to wear a disguise.

“I don’t know how accepted I’ll be,” Hollins said. “I may have made a few people mad.”

Hollins stuck it to his hometown school in grand fashion Friday, scoring a career-high 41 points to lead the Gophers to an 84-75 victory over No. 19 Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Hollins connected on 12 of his 16 field goal attempts and made all five of his shots from 3-point range. The point total was the most by a Minnesota player since 1971.

“He put on a great display,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “Thank goodness he had the game he had. We needed every point.”

Memphis coach Josh Pastner had attempted to sign Hollins, but it was a tough sell because the Tigers already had a point guard in Joe Jackson, who had teamed with Hollins at White Station High School. Jackson, who is one year older than Hollins, was starting for the Tigers as a freshman, so Hollins opted for Minnesota.

“It was hard,” Hollins said. “It would’ve been nice to play in front of my friends and family. I was definitely considering Memphis, but I’m glad I made the right choice by going to Minnesota.”

Hollins, though, said he felt as if he were back home Friday. Along with being Jackson's former teammate, Hollins competed against Tigers forwards Shaq Goodwin and Adonis Thomas, who went to rival high schools. And he began playing AAU ball with Memphis guard Chris Crawford when he was 9.

“There was no trash-talking,” Jackson said. “We respect each other too much. It was a great opportunity to play against these guys. They’re a great bunch of guys. I was definitely comfortable playing against them, but I knew it was going to be hard.”

But Hollins made it look easy.

He had 24 points to spark Memphis to a 47-42 halftime lead. The Tigers took a 68-67 lead on D.J. Stephens’ 3-pointer with 6:10 remaining, but the Gophers battled back and won the game handily thanks to some key free throws down the stretch by Hollins, who was 12-of-13 from the foul stripe.

He even scored on an uncharacteristic dunk as the final seconds ticked away.

“Dre stepped up in a big way today,” Minnesota forward Rodney Williams said. “It was pretty much, ‘Give Dre the ball and see what happens.’ ”

[+] EnlargeAndre Hollins
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireMinnesota will be counting on Andre Hollins to provide a scoring punch again this season.
Smith said he didn’t have any trouble instructing his players to feed the ball to Hollins.

“When you’re shooting like that and you’ve got the hot hand ... he was feeling it,” Smith said. “We want him to take those shots. He’s really evolving into a complete player.

“We know Dre can shoot the ball, but his floor leadership is really improving. Running a team, understanding the flow of the game, the tempo of the game, all of the things you have to do as a point guard.”

Thrilled as he was with his performance, Hollins is competing in the Battle 4 Atlantis with a heavy heart. His grandmother passed away Nov. 17, and the funeral was Wednesday. Hollins was unable to attend because he was already with the Gophers in the Bahamas.

“I did that for her,” Hollins said. “I know she’s shining down on me.”

Hollins’ mother, Donna, made the trip to watch her son compete this weekend. She had tears in her eyes as she rushed up to hug her son when he left his postgame news conference.

“It’s definitely a great feeling,” Hollins said. “It’s going to be one of the top memories of my life.”

Here are a few other thoughts from Friday’s Memphis-Minnesota game:

Star of the game: Hollins is the obvious answer, but Rodney Williams also came up huge. Williams scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and had three blocks and three assists in 25 minutes. He hit a huge basket at 5:56 of the second half to put the Gophers up 69-68. Memphis had taken the lead seconds earlier, but Williams’ basket thwarted the Tigers’ momentum.

Key stat: Minnesota went 28-of-33 from the free throw line and hit 10 in a row at one key point down the stretch. Memphis was just 14-of-22 and missed five straight when the game was still close. Two of those five misses came on the front end of one-and-one opportunities.

Other observations: Memphis coach Josh Pastner is clearly frustrated with junior point guard Joe Jackson. Less than 24 hours after committing seven turnovers in just 20 minutes and fouling out against VCU, Jackson turned in another clunker Friday. He played just seven minutes in the first half -- he had two turnovers -- and never got off the bench after halftime.

Pastner has invested a lot in Jackson the past few seasons. He’s waited patiently for Jackson to develop consistency and has supported him despite his enigmatic nature. Memphis has missed out on other point guard recruits -- Hollins being one of them -- who believed Jackson was embedded as the starter. Pastner, though, seems to have finally had enough and is trying to deliver a message.

“He’s my point guard,” Pastner said Thursday, “he’s the quarterback, I need him, the team needs him and he’s good enough. He’s a high-level guy. He’s got to have tremendous confidence. Unfortunately, the last (three) games, he hasn’t played as well.”

Hollins was asked what kind of advice he’d give his former high school teammate.

“I’d just tell him to keep his head up and start playing basketball like Joe Jackson,” Hollins said. “We know he’s a great player. He taught me a lot. Some of my game today reflected on what he’s taught me.”

Miscellaneous: Trevor Mbakwe scored only five points, but he’s still showing more signs of getting back on track. The forward snared eight rebounds in just 20 minutes, including three on the offensive end. ... Gophers coach Tubby Smith said he was pleased with the spark Andre Ingram (six points and three rebounds in 15 minutes) provided off the bench. ... Junior college transfer Geron Johnson made his debut for Memphis after missing the first three games because of a suspension. He scored just four points in 22 minutes and had three turnovers. ... D.J. Stephens has really stepped up his game for the Tigers. He had 15 points and seven rebounds. There aren’t many players in college basketball who can leap as high as Stephens, who gets a lot of easy baskets on putbacks and tip-ins. ... Shaq Goodwin is playing at a high level for a freshman. He’s adapted quickly. The only knock on him -- and it’s a significant one -- is that he’s missing too many layups. Most times, though, he’s able to rebound his own miss and score anyway. ... Memphis needs to get more out of veteran Chris Crawford, who had a terrible performance Friday. Crawford had just two points before burying a meaningless 3-pointer with four seconds remaining. He also missed the front end of one-and-one situations on two occasions, once when the Tigers trailed 67-65 and once when they were down 69-68.

Up next: Minnesota advances to the fifth-place game and will play Stanford. Memphis will take on Northern Iowa in the seventh-place game.