Jim Dutcher coached the 1982 University of Minnesota basketball team to the Big Ten Conference regular season championship, and he remains an authority on college hoops watching a lot of Big Ten and national games. He believes five programs are among the most likely to finish last in the 14-team conference: Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers. Many prognosticators have the Gophers finishing in the cellar.
Coach Ben Johnson’s first two Minnesota teams placed last in the standings, but this season’s roster could be built to avoid a third consecutive embarrassment. When Dutcher was asked about impressions of the 5-3 (overall record) Golden Gophers, he referred to the past and said: “I think (the) talent (is) much better, particularly up front. Their front line when they have (Dawson) Garcia and (Pharrel) Payne and (Joshua) Ola-Joseph is pretty impressive. Still have some trouble with guard play, turning the ball over too much, but there is some talent there.”
The three big men mentioned haven’t been starting together, with Payne coming off the bench, but that could be changing. More on the starting lineup later.
Dawson, the junior forward-center from Savage, is tied for second in scoring among Big Ten players. He and Tyson Walker of Michigan State are averaging 20.5 points per game.
Dawson had a career-high 36 points in Sunday night’s opening Big Ten game against Ohio State in Columbus. Dawson was particularly effective inside the lane, scoring on nifty moves near the rim. Now he could be poised for another big game Wednesday night in the conference home opener against Nebraska.
Dutcher told Sports Headliners coach Fred Hoiberg’s Cornhuskers, who were 9-11 in the Big Ten last season, have improved but he identified a flaw that could work in Dawson’s favor. “Their weakness is still their inside defense and that is certainly a strength of Minnesota. Garcia is as good as I’ve seen there in a while. He’s not only good, he’s real good.”
Dutcher thinks Minnesota and Nebraska are competitively matched. The Huskers are 7-1 on the season but haven’t played a formidable schedule as is true for most Big Ten teams at this time in the fall. In their biggest test, they lost 89-60 to nationally-ranked Creighton in Omaha on Sunday. “I’ll pick us here (in Minneapolis) and I would have taken Nebraska at Nebraska,” Dutcher said.
Circling back to Minnesota’s front line, Dutcher sees improvement in sophomores Payne and Ola-Joseph. Their athleticism is evident every time they step on the court and both have the potential to impact the game in Minnesota’s favor offensively and defensively.
The Gopher backcourt, however, is problematic too much of the time. “As the year goes on, you’ll see some improvement in their guard play,” Dutcher said. “Right now, it’s just the case of too many turnovers at crucial times that keeps them in hot water.”
The Gophers are averaging a conference worst 14.1 turnovers per game. Their turnover margin per game against opponents is -3.00. Those numbers, BTW, have been compiled against mediocre, or worse, competition. Dutcher’s view: if the Gophers solve their turnover issues “they could be very competitive.”
Another offensive issue is lack of ball movement. “Their point guard (Elijah Hawkins) over dribbles the ball,” Dutcher said. “Anytime the guard is dribbling around, everyone else is standing. So a little bit better ball movement (is needed). Ben knows that and their staff knows that and they’re working to improve it.”
It’s not just been Hawkins (the starter) who hasn’t given the Gophers enough playmaking at guard. Mike Mitchell Jr., a transfer like Hawkins, and Braeden Carrington haven’t’ excelled in playmaking either.
The Gophers need improvement defensively, too. In their 84-74 loss to Ohio State, they trailed 42-28 at halftime and while they played better in the second half the Gophers couldn’t make the big defensive stops when needed.
Minnesota is 11th in the conference giving up 68.8 points per game. In their three losses (including Missouri and San Francisco) the Gophers have yielded 70 points or more.
Johnson shortened his rotation in the second half Sunday night, and it helped. More playing time for his better players seems likely Wednesday night. There also could be a starting lineup change with Payne or freshman Cam Christie replacing forward Isaiah Ihnen who is scoreless in the last three games and twice has finished with no rebounds and no assists. He also struggled defensively in the Ohio State game.
Want to see textbook defense? Watch last Saturday’s Virginia-Syracuse game and the performance of former St. Thomas star Andrew Rohde. The 6-6 guard was superb in individual and team defense for Virginia, consistently moving his feet to maintain position and using his arms and body correctly while having ball awareness.
The Brookfield, Wisconsin native has started all eight games for Virginia and is fifth on the team in scoring at 7.4 points per game. A sophomore, he leads the Cavs in assists with 22.
A reminder came yesterday that there have been a lot of unsuccessful seasons for the Timberwolves when Chris Finch was honored as the NBA’s Western Conference Coach of the Month for October and November—the first Wolves coach to be so recognized since Kevin McHale in 2009. Finch got the Wolves off to a 14-4 start in the first two months of the season.
Gophers football fans who want to attend Minnesota’s Quick Lane Bowl game in Detroit against Bowling Green on December 26 don’t have to miss Christmas at home. Steve and Dorothy Erban’s Creative Charters is offering a same day round-trip for $329 per person that includes flight and ground transportation. Anyone who does comparative shopping will see that’s a real bargain.
What’s the “over-under” for the number of Vikings fans who will attend Sunday’s game in Las Vegas between Minnesota and the Raiders? I’ll go with 7,000 in Sin City.
Season grades so far for Vikings’ starting offensive linemen by Pro Football Focus: left tackle Christian Darrisaw, 85; right tackle Brian O’Neill, 74.7; center Garrett Bradbury, 65.1; right guard Ed Ingram, 61.4; left guard Dalton Risner, 53.
Congratulations to St. Thomas athletics director Phil Esten for being named by Twin Cities Business as one of the “100 people to know in 2024.” The list recognizes achievers in the state expected to be newsmakers and change leaders during the coming year.
CBS ended its telecast schedule of SEC football games last Saturday, an association that started in 1996. Legendary play-by-play voices through the years were both native Minnesotans, Verne Lundquist and Brad Nessler. Two of the best, along with Keith Jackson, to ever call college football games.