Minnesota won its first Big Ten game of the season on Sunday at Williams Arena.
The defensive intensity from last year never went anywhere.
So what, then, has been the problem for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team this season?
The leading scorer, All-Big Ten guard Vincent Grier, is back for another season.
Add to the mix senior guard Maurice Hargrow — who had been gone for a year and a half after transferring to Arkansas, then back to the Gophers — and the talent seemed to suggest that Minnesota could improve upon last season’s NCAA Tournament appearance.
But the team Hargrow returned to seem eerily similar to the team from which he fled.
The Gophers were 3-13 in the Big Ten in 2003-2004 and lost their first eight league games. This season, Minnesota opened the conference season with six losses.
The 2003-2004 team relied on the forced shots of freshman forward Kris Humphries for its offense. This year, the same could be said in how much of the offense was forced through Grier.
Until Sunday’s win against Indiana.
Against Indiana, Grier didn’t force things.
The result? In the first half, the Gophers shot a little better than 61 percent from the field.
Coming into the game, Minnesota was shooting 43 percent from the field.
Last season, Grier shot 47 percent from the field. Before Sunday’s game, he was shooting 40 percent from the field. Against Indiana, Grier was 7-of-14.
And the story goes deeper than just numbers.
The biggest moments of two narrow Big Ten losses have proven that Grier has been a different player this season.
Against Northwestern, in Minnesota’s conference opener, Grier attempted the Gophers’ last eight field goals. Minnesota lost by eight.
At Iowa, Grier forced shots at the end of regulation and the end of the first overtime. Neither shot fell, and Minnesota dropped a 76-72 triple overtime decision to the Hawkeyes.
Sunday, things were different. The offense wasn’t predicated on Grier slashing and tossing a shot between defenders.
There seemed to be an offensive philosophy, rather than four guys standing around waiting for Grier to make something happen. His teammates were cutting to the basket and flashing to the ball.
Although Grier attempted 14 field goals, it didn’t seem like he was throwing up circus shots every other possession. The attempts came within the flow of the offense.
The game felt a lot like last season, from the first eight baskets of the game coming off assists, right down to coach Dan Monson chest bumping his players.
It’s too late now to salvage an NCAA Tournament berth. But if the Gophers continue playing like they did Sunday, at least the end of the season could be worth watching.
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