Minnesota needs to put the right Lawrence on the floor

C.J. Spang

I could understand if players’ first names were printed on the backs of their jerseys. But they aren’t, last names are.

And that’s why I have no idea why Minnesota’s men basketball coach Dan Monson played freshman guard Lawrence Westbrook as much as he did, and didn’t play junior guard Lawrence McKenzie as much as he should have in the Old Spice Classic.

Entering the tournament in Orlando, Fla., the Gophers were 2-1, losing their most recent game to Iowa State after blowing a late lead.

In those three games, McKenzie averaged 31.7 minutes and 19.7 points per game. He was shot 54.8 percent from the field, 60 percent from three-point land and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line, quickly establishing himself as the team’s go-to guy.

It was clear McKenzie was going to have to make plays and shoot the rock for his team to win, reminiscent of the responsibilities Vincent Grier had during his time at Minnesota. Only Grier had a hideous shot, whereas McKenzie does not.

His shooting prowess was on display against the Cyclones as McKenzie took nine shots and hit five of them, including a 4-of-6 showing from downtown, on his way to 15 points in the loss.

His nine shots and 15 points were both season lows, but it was only a taste of things to come for the transfer from Oklahoma.

In the Gophers’ opening game in Orlando against Marist, a 63-56 loss, McKenzie chucked 19 shots and hit seven of them. While that doesn’t look spectacular, his 36.8 percent shooting was still above the Minnesota’s 34.3 percent shooting as a team. He also led the team with 35 minutes played and 17 points.

He only took five shots and went nearly nine minutes without a shot in the first half, and during that stretch the Gophers went from being down three points to down 13.

If your best shooter is going to be jacking up shots left and right, let him do it in the first half and find his rhythm then, rather than in the second half when each possession has more value.

Not gonna happen – at least it didn’t in the 69-53 loss to Southern Illinois.

McKenzie took just three first-half shots, with his first shot coming almost six minutes into the contest, and his last shot of the half coming with over 12 minutes remaining.

The second half wasn’t much better and McKenzie ended with season-lows in field goal attempts (8), field goals (3), points (7) and minutes (26).

On the other hand, Westbrook played a career-high 16 minutes, despite playing just 27 minutes, scoring nine points on 3-for-10 shooting in the previous four games combined. That included a 0-for-4 shooting performance against Marist.

Westbrook took seven shots from the floor, hitting three of them, ending up with nine points. But there was one glaring problem – he had a team-high five turnovers.

Even though it came against the Salukis’ great defense, McKenzie, by comparison, coughed the ball up just once.

There is no question Westbrook has a scorer’s mentality, but his media guide-aided 6-foot frame limits what he can do on the court, and most of his turnovers came when he lowered his head and drove the lane looking to score, only to run into a big man or two.

But that recklessness didn’t dissuade Monson as he gave Westbrook the vote of confidence in the final game against Montana.

Against the Grizzlies, Westbrook set new career highs again, playing 19 minutes, taking 10 shots, many of them forced and with plenty of time left on the shot clock. He made four shots and scored 11 points. This time, he had three turnovers.

But Westbrook had a huge mental mistake that overshadowed all those numbers, as he fouled Montana in the closing seconds despite Monson standing on the court screaming at his team not to foul. The Grizzlies made their free throws, to hang on for the 72-65 win.

McKenzie played 28 minutes that game, scoring 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting. It doesn’t seem right that a starting guard and the team’s best shooter had as many shots as an undersized guard coming off the bench.

I understand the point of playing younger players in the early part of the season. It only makes sense to find out who will step up during the grind of the Big Ten season. But sacrificing your best player in the process doesn’t make sense to me.

McKenzie was visibly upset after being taken out of the game, for seemingly no reason, on a couple of occasions against Montana.

Now, McKenzie might have just been upset with his own individual performance, but one can’t help but think he may have been frustrated by his situation too.

And there is no way this situation would have occurred last season considering Monson constantly hammered home the point that it was “Vince’s team.”

If Monson hopes to start winning again sometime soon, and have any chance of getting fans to stop calling for his head, it better become “Lawrence’s (McKenzie) team” quickly.

– C.J. Spang welcomes comments at [email protected]