Now it is a trend. For the second game in a row and the fifth time this season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers outplayed their opponents in the second half of a game, and will face the Dayton Flyers in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic. Maybe this is just a bit of good karma to make up for the disastrous previous trip to Orlando that signaled the end of the Monson regime, or maybe the Gophers are just a good second half team.
No one should be complaining about a team that can seemingly turn on the afterburners whenever they feel like, even if it does take about 30 minutes of game time for things to click. The Gophers haven’t been able to close games like this since most of the players were in elementary school and Tubby Smith was still in the good graces of even the most psychotic of Kentucky fans. However, it sure would be nice to get off to a good start. Opponents haven’t been good enough to give the Gophers an insurmountable deficit or consistent enough to keep their lead. Once the Big Ten season rolls around in a few short weeks, that won’t be the case. Ohio State can blow the doors off a team with 50+ points in a half. Wisconsin will kill so much clock that there won’t be enough time. Even Northwestern, committing the fewest turnovers in all of Division I basketball won’t give up any extra possessions. Playing better as the game goes on is greater, but playing well from the beginning is better.
Part of the problem in the last two games has been be the personnel on the court in the opening minutes. I am a big Ralph Sampson III proponent, even if I don’t understand his silly dance. However, as long as he is battling a bum ankle, the coaching staff has to find a way to determine if he is able to play before they send him out on the court to wait and see what happens. He was noticeably slowed by his injured ankle and Minnesota was playing four on five on both ends of the court.
Tubby Smith’s deep rotation has undoubtedly helped in late game situations as the Gophers have worn down their opponents. Chip Armelin came off the bench early and often against Indiana State and played the best game of his career. Unfortunately, Tubby Smith’s deep bench is still taking the court all at once. There needs to be at least one of Andre Hollins, Julian Welch, or Trevor Mbakwe on the court at all times. The Sycamores went on 10-2 run to end the first half without any of the aforementioned on the court.
The Dayton Flyers out of the numerically challenged Atlantic 10 will be Minnesota’s toughest test so far in this young season. They have been a fixture in the NIT in three of the last four seasons and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2009. If they can consistently play up to their abilities this season, there is no reason why they can’t make it back to the NIT or even the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, they’ve already let a winnable game get away, losing at Miami of Ohio in overtime. So far in the Old Spice Classic they beat Wake Forest by four and Fairfied by seven.
Unlike DePaul, who loves to run, and Indiana State, who would rather grind the game to halt, the Flyers play at exactly the same pace as the Gophers, 67.1 possessions per game. It is too early to tell if Flyers’ coach Archie Miller prefers this pace considering that Sunday will be only the sixth game of his coaching career, and the Gophers would be well advised to set the pace themselves. Against both DePaul and Indiana State, they got sucked into their opponents game plan early, and didn’t start their comebacks until they changed the pace of the game.
On offense, they Flyers shoot and score a lot from behind the three-point line. So far, over 39% of their field goal attempts come from the outside and their 36.1% three-point shooting is above average. The Gophers still allow more three-point attempts than they should, but it is eight percentage points less than a year ago. Paul Williams, a 6’4” senior guard is one of the best three-point shooters in the country at 56.5% from the outside and has made three or more three-pointers three times so far this season. He should be guarded by Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams, two of Minnesota better perimeter defenders. He isn’t much of a driver and only shoots about one free-throw per game, so Minnesota defenders should be able to defend him closely.
Dayton is also a good inside scoring team and has decent size along the front line. Josh Benson, a 6’9” forward/center averages better than 10 points per game and is shooting 58% from the floor. Matt Kavanaugh, at a much bulkier version of 6’9”, averages nine points per game and make 53% of his shot attempts. If the Flyers can get the ball inside, they know how to score. Of course, it should be noted, Dayton has only played two of the top 100 shot blocking teams in the country. The Gophers rank 23rd in the country in blocking shots.
Overall, the Flyers are a jump shooting team that should allow the Gophers to play defense aggressively without risk of foul trouble. Dayton is third worst in the country at getting to the free-throw line. Sure, they make 75% of their free-throw attempts, but haven’t made more than 15 in a game this season. The Gophers have made more than 20 free-throws in a game three times.
There is the temptation to give too much weight to early season tournament wins. But no, the Gophers won’t be ranked if they beat Dayton, and they shouldn’t be either. However, the more wins the Gophers can secure before they start playing well bodes well for the end of the season when they will most likely be playing better, barring injuries, unexpected departures, and other thing that will certainly never happen to the Gophers. The name of the game at this point is avoiding losses to make sure March matters. If Minnesota picks up bad non-conference losses, a March run through the Big Ten might not be good enough.