In 1986 the NCAA introduced the three-point line in college basketball, and it was in 1986 that the Golden Gophers 2010-2011 college basketball season would be doomed to failure. Despite having one of the best three-point shooters in the country, a series of injuries and unexpected departures left the Gophers unable to use the great equalizer on offense, and forced to play Russian roulette on defense. The painful result was one of the more disappointing seasons in Gopher basketball history.
Tubby Smith has always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the three-line. It isn’t that he actively despises the concept of three-pointers as some seem to argue. Instead, he assumes that it is easier to score closer to the basket. On offense that means pounding the ball inside, and on defense it means doubling the post whenever feasible.
The Gophers were actually as bad as you remember from the perimeter, both shooting and defending the three pointer. They ranked 277th in three-point percentage, and 176th in defending the three. Their three-point percentage allowed was just below average, but the real problem was the absurd number of three-point attempts allowed. Minnesota allowed the second most three-pointers in the country, and 43% of all field goal attempts allowed came from the perimeter, compared to a national average of 32%.
Luckily, and hopefully, this was something of an aberration. During the 2009-201o season the Gophers were the 11th best three-point shooting team in the country. In 2008-2009, their previous worst year under Tubby Smith, they shot 33% from behind the three-point line, which wasn’t great but it was at least adequate. In Tubby Smith’s first season with the Gophers, the team ranked 97th in the country. Under Coach Smith the Gophers have consistently given up an above average number of three-pointers, but it wasn’t particularly detrimental to their success until last season because they could at least make a few threes of their own.
Minnesota’s inability to even attempt perimeter shots towards the end of last season, and the sheer volume of perimeter shots allowed was particularly startling. In a home loss to Michigan State, the Gophers attempted eight three pointers and the Spartans made six three pointers. At Purdue, the Gophers attempted nine three-pointers and the Boilermakers made 10. Against Michigan the Gophers attempted 16 three-pointers while the Wolverines made 12.
Even when they were semi-successful at defending the perimeter, the sheer volume of attempts was astonishing. Opponents shot at least 29 three-pointers on 10 different occasions. This occurred only four times in 2009-2010 and not at all in 2008-2009 or 2007-2008.
Minnesota’s shot selection, and their opponents’ shot selection largely depended on the presence or lack thereof of Al Nolen. With Nolen, the Gophers could play man to man defense, and while the nearly automatic doubling of the post allowed plenty of three-point attempts, the other team at least thought they had a chance to score from the inside and tried to score. Without Nolen, the Gophers switched to a 2-3 zone, and a gigantic one at that with Blake Hoffarber, standing at 6’4”, the shortest player on the floor. With so much size, it wasn’t worth trying to get the ball inside, and instead it was bombs away from the outside. While the switch to zone was obvious, the impact of the loss of Nolen on Minnesota’s outside shooting was just as dramatic. Without Nolen, Hoffarber played the point, and wasn’t able to find room to shoot. Since Hoffarber was the only legitimate outside shooting threat on the team, no one else even tried. Last season Blake Hoffarber was the only Gopher to attempt more than 50 three-pointers. Austin Hollins attempted the second most with 50. The year before, the Gophers had three players shoot more than 50. Hoffarber attempted 182, while Lawrence Westbrook and Devoe Joseph each attempted 129. The prior two seasons the Gophers had four players attempted more than 50 three-pointers. The fewer players that are willing to attempt outside shots, the easier it is to defend the only player who will.
So why all this analysis and concern about the three-pointer you may ask? The simple truth is that it is important bordering on crucial in college basketball, regardless of whether Coach Smith wants to acknowledge it. The Gophers, or really any college team doesn’t need to be an elite three-point shooting team to be successful. However, very few teams can be awful from behind the three-point line and still hope to make the Big Dance. Of the 68 teams to play in last season’s NCAA tournament, only two, Tennessee and Alabama State, had a worse three point-percentage. Somewhat surprisingly, excelling at three-point shooting hardly seems to be predictive of success. Only half of the top 20 three-point shooting teams last season made the NCAA tournament. The moral of this story seems to be don’t be awful, and if you consider that shooting 33% on three-pointers is the same as shooting 50% for two-pointers, making at least 33% of three-pointers and keeping opponents from shooting that well is a noble goal. To reach that goal, or at least the first part of it, the Gophers need to have a threat from the outside.
Minnesota’s outside shooting is question mark number two, behind who handles the ball, and with actual options at point guard, it could rise to number one. Of the returning Gophers, only Maurice Walker shot at least 40%, and that was on only five attempts. Maverick Ahanmisi clocks in at 29.6%, Hollins at 22%, and Williams at 21%.
While players can improve, it certainly looks like it will be up to some of the newcomers to save the day. The player most likely to help is Oto Osenieks who is touted as something of a three-point specialist, but I’m a little concerned that is just another way to say he is European. Julian Welch shot 35% in his one season at UC Davis, which would have ranked second on the Gophers last season, and given his 77 attempts, he seems at least willing to shoot when open. Andre Hollins is supposed to be a good three-point shooter, but he hasn’t played a second of Division I basketball either. Assuming that three new-comers are willing to shoot, and at least one returning player makes a modest improvement, the 33% three-point shooting goal should be achievable. And with the potential of four players who can get a shot off from the outside, the Gophers will have four more options from the outside than they had at the end of last season.
Here’s to hoping…