Gophers continue strong start, though not without their share of flaws
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Positives abound for the Gophers men's basketball team early in a season loaded with lofty expectations.
A fiercely stout pressure defense and reliable scoring from a deep roster fronted by star forward Rodney Williams have lifted the No. 22-ranked Gophers to an 8-1 record and the brink of the national spotlight.
But the polish isn't there yet, leaving a number of their weaknesses on display. However, other than a misstep against a superior Duke squad, the notably resilient Gophers have found enough ways to overshadow their flaws.
That was again the case on Saturday.
After a successful, but draining week-long road trip with four games against NCAA tournament-caliber teams, the Gophers were back at Williams Arena to face North Florida in a match-up that prior to tip-off seemed destined to be one-sided.
For eight minutes Saturday, North Florida reversed the storyline. Call it lingering fatigue or a mental letdown after four grueling games, but the Gophers opened the afternoon a disjointed mess.
Behind a trio of 3-pointers and a 2-3 zone defense, North Florida didn't share in its opponents slow start, jumping to a 18-10 lead. But the Gophers eventually found their balance and dominated the rest of the way -- a 27-9 finishing run in the first half turned into an 87-59 victory.
Coach Tubby Smith noted his team's sluggish start, though any pressing concerns he might have had took second-billing to the final result.
"I thought we came out a little flat," Smith said. "I think some of it is being back home, it was a long trip. But we responded the right way and picked up the intensity, picked up the pressure and did some good things."
The Gophers defensively overmatched the undersized Ospreys. Once the initial rush had worn off, North Florida's started to force shots inside and passes were made with a lackadaisical touch. The Gophers capitalized to the tune of 13 blocks -- tied for the fourth most in team history - a season-high 15 steals and 31 points scored off North Florida's 22 turnovers.
Williams took to the forefront after a timid opening stretch, leading the team with 14 points and eight rebounds. Seven other "U" players followed with six or more points.
Though the Gophers were satisfied with their powerful finish, there was a sense of disappointment regarding some lapses in play, especially their early letdown.
"It was just us being out there and not doing anything," Williams said. "Basically, we were out there for nothing. I don't think it was anything they were doing. I think it was just us being lazy."
Starting center Elliott Eliason added, "We just weren't ready to play. You can't do that against anybody. We were fortunate to climb back in and get a big win, but you can't do that."
The Gophers continue to periodically have issues finishing shots around the rim. As North Florida allowed them to come inside more and more, the Gophers were given several open looks close to the basket that weren't converted. Ultimately they made up for the misses with a season-high 25 offensive rebounds and a 45.2 field goal percentage - overall they held a 48-35 rebounding advantage.
Though North Florida's lack of size made driving inside the most desirable strategy, the Gophers didn't have much of choice as they struggled to convert from 3-point range. Guard Maverick Ahanmisi's 3-pointer with 1:43 left in the game stood as the Gophers' only made shot from long distance, ending a 0-for-12 drought.
"I don't know what it is," Smith said of his team's inconsistencies from outside. "We had some open looks, some wide-open looks. Other than Maverick knocking down the one in front of the bench late in the game, it just didn't go. I think it's a matter of concentration."
And while the Gophers' turnover total (13) was below their season average (15.6), their tendency to cough up the ball remains a pressing concern. The Gophers have posted a Big Ten-worst 138 turnovers. Guard Andre Hollins attributed that alarming number to being timid at times offensively, looking to quickly to pass.
The correlation could be seen on Saturday. Struggling to ignite their offense at the game's onset, the Gophers turned over the ball four times in a less than two-minute stretch. That happened again near the end of the game after they had backed off on their aggressive inside presence,, with three turnovers coming during a two-minute span in which they scored only from the free throw line.
By the end of the afternoon, however, it didn't matter. The Gophers relied on their up-tempo defensive style to force North Florida into bad decisions, which has been a primary key to their success thus far.
"That's our DNA," Smith said. "We have to hang our hat on our defense. Certainly we do a good job challenging shots."
Although not without obvious weaknesses, the Gophers are finding ways to keep their impressively strong start to the season in forward motion. Getting to Big Ten play with only one blemish on their record is highly probable for the Gophers, with four non-conference games remaining - only one of which is against a major conference team (USC). But if the offensive lapses and turnover woes can't be softened in the next few weeks, the Gophers could face reoccurring troubles come Big Ten season.