Looking back at the non-conference season and forward to the Big Ten


The Gophers will enter Big Ten play with an 11-1 record, and will likely enter Big Ten play as the second highest ranked Big Ten team after beating South Dakota State on Christmas Eve Eve. It is obviously a little late for the traditional write-up, thanks to the hectic nature of the holiday season. Instead, allow me to regale you with some of the random thoughts that have been bouncing around my head as we approach the Big Ten Tip-off against our hated neighbors to the east:

  • Will there ever be a blow-out? Minnesota’s twelve point win over SDSU was their 4th double-digit home victory of the season, which means they didn’t have a single 20 point home win during the non-conference season. Dan Monson had at least one twenty-point home non-conference win in every season he coached the Gophers, and so had Tubby Smith until this year.
  • If Blake Hoffarber had played better against the Jackrabbits, the Gophers would likely have their 20 point win. He scored only four points in 36 minutes, and had some very bizarre turnovers in the process.
  • Playing at full strength was too good to be true. For a half, the Gophers finally had their full roster in tact. Then Mo Walker crashed to the court with a “significant” knee injury. With Al Nolen’s foot problems and Devoe Joseph’s suspension this season and Al Nolen’s suspension last year, the Gophers have been missing someone for nearly a year. If you want to throw Trevor Mbakwe and the player of whom we will not speak into the equation, and the Gophers haven’t had a full roster since they lost to Texas in the NCAA tournament two season’s ago.
  • Are the Gophers any good? The Gophers will probably be ranked about 15th in the country when polls come out sometime Monday afternoon, and I don’t know a single person who is comfortable with this ranking. The Gophers haven’t played well since beating North Dakota State on Thanksgiving Eve. There seem to be two schools of thought regarding their play as of late. The first is that the Gophers just don’t try very much when they are playing “bad” teams. They’ll start slow, seemingly coast through most of the game, do whatever they need to do to build a somewhat comfortable lead, and stop caring enough to allow the opponent to make the final score uncomfortably close. The other school of thought is that the Gophers just aren’t very good. Playing without effort isn’t something that good teams do often but it is something they can get away with in moderation. Regardless of what ails the Gophers, they don’t have the statistical profile of one of the top teams in the country. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Gophers 55th. This seems too low, but 15th seems too high. We’ll learn a lot on Tuesday night in Madison.
  • So where should the Gophers be ranked? The Gophers may be overrated, but there aren’t too may viable candidates to jump ahead of them. Jeff Goodman of Fox Sports Ranks the Gophers 11th in this weeks poll, and as he explained on Twitter, there just aren’t that many good teams this season. Even some top ten teams have some very noticeable warts. San Diego State is in the top ten, but only beat San Francisco and IUPUI by a combined 8 points. Big Ten stalwarts Illinois and Michigan State have a combined seven losses. Outside the Big Ten, Kentucky lost to an average at best North Carolina team that has 4 losses, including a loss to the Gophers. Like it or not, Minnesota isn’t dropping in the rankings as long as they keep winning, regardless of the margin, and could stay ranked for a while if they lose to good teams.
  • A quick shot isn’t always a bad shot for Devoe Joseph. Devoe’s shot selection has caused a lot hand-wringing, but it is too simple to say he shouldn’t take a shot early in the shot clock. Joseph is at his best if he can pull up and shoot. He needs the one dribble to gather himself. Coming down the court in transition is one of the easiest time to get a shot off the bounce. The key for Joseph is to get that shot in rhythm, and not fade-away or to the side. If he is fading he is rushing. If he isn’t fading, it is a good shot even if doesn’t fall every time.
  • The Gophers didn’t press against South Dakota State even though they have two point guards. Tubby Smith might have held off until Al Nolen is back up to full speed. The Gophers may be saving the press to spring surprise on the Badgers. The press also might be dead without a defender as versatile as Damian Johnson on the court. I hope Tubby brings it back, both because it is entertaining to watch and because it would eat up some time before opponents set up their half-court offense, and launch the inevitably successful three-point attempt.
  • Al Nolen can save Minnesota, if they even need saving. Ken Pomeroy rhetorically asked if Al Nolen can save the Gophers, and answers that he can’t based on math, algorithms, and “the variability in the performance of his teammates.” Pomeroy knows more about the statistical analysis of basketball than everyone but God, but he also doesn’t watch the Gophers very often. Minnesota has two big problem areas, three-point defense and free-throws. Nolen is the team’s best perimeter defender, has the best defensive instincts, and is the fastest even if he has lost a step due to injury. He can cover more ground and be in the right place at the right time more than any Gopher perimeter defender, and will improve the perimeter defense. He helped hold Nate Wolters, SDSU’s best player to 16 points on 6-15 shooting. He is averaging nearly 19 point this season on 43% shooting. Nolen may have an even bigger impact at the free-throw line, where he has shot better than 70% each season.This is significantly better than the team’s 62% shooting. More importantly, Nolen attempts more than 6 free-throws per game, by far the most of Minnesota’s more reliable free-throw shooters. Nolen fills two glaring holes, and his 8 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 assists may have save the Gophers against the Jackrabbits.
  • The volume of three-pointers is more troublesome than the success rate. Gopher opponents have made 36.7% of their three point attempts this season, which isn’t great, but also isn’t then end of the world. It ranks 256th of 344 teams in the country, but is only .4% worse than Wisconsin. The real problem is that Gopher opponents attempt and absurd number of three-pointers. Over 39% of field goal attempts against the Gophers have come from behind the three point line compared to a national average of 32%. This, combined with the mediocre perimeter defense, means only Air Force and Campbell have given up more points from behind the three-point line than the Gophers. With Minnesota’s smothering interior defense, opponents almost have to shoot from the outside to have a chance to beat the Gophers, and have had plenty of success doing so.
  • A quick thought on the Wisconsin game. Match-ups matter, sometimes more than anything else, and the Gophers should still match-up well against the Badgers. John Leuer has struggled against the Gophers length and physical defense. Jordan Taylor’s impact should be diminished by Al Nolen’s defense. Once you take away the two best Badgers, they become a very average team. Tubby Smith, despite the recent Gopher struggles, may get his 4th straight win over Bo Ryan even if the Gophers play an imperfect game. Match-ups are of course a double edged sword, as anyone who has seen the Gophers play Michigan the last two years knows.