Three weeks ago I was cursing Michigan for ruining the Gophers’ season. Now I should be thanking them, profusely. Minnesota’s embarrassing home loss to the Wolverines may be the final nails in the NCAA tournament coffin, but it also awoke a struggling Gopher team that was threatening to sleep walk its way through the rest of the season.
Don’t look to hard at that 8 point Gopher loss on February 11th. The Gophers aren’t the same team, and in a lot of ways, have altered their strategy specifically to defeat teams designed like Michigan. In the earlier loss, the Gophers were torched by their inability to guard defenders one on one. Despite a massive size advantage, they were dominated in the paint. Even though they had everything to play for, it is hard to argue that they showed up at all.
Now the Gophers have gone big, gone zone, and gone on a 3-1 run with only a one point loss to Purdue. Back on the bubble, the Gophers aren’t likely to come out flat again like they did against the Wolverines. They can’t afford to. They also can’t afford to let Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims play two on five and dominate. Thanks to the zone the driving lanes won’t be open, and whomever is stuck guarding Sims will have automatic weak side help.
Tuesday’s game will come down to what every game since the zone switch comes down to, hoping and praying that the threes don’t fall. Tubby Smith’s defense of choice, the ball-line defense was always predicated on the simple fact that three pointers are more difficult to make than two pointers. Minnesota’s zone takes this to the extreme. The Gophers have given up an average of nearly 27 three point attempts per game over the last four games. Michigan attempts 43% of their field goal attempts from behind the three point line, making less than 30% from distance.
Basketball is often not a complicated game, and a few simple changes have turned everything around. If you can’t guard one on one, then don’t. If a three is harder to make than a two, then let them shoot threes. With a little luck and some poor Wolverine shooting, the Gophers will be a simple win away from their best Big Ten finish since 2005, and maybe, just maybe a trip to the NCAA tournament.