Eight games into the season the Gophers have already played the toughest part of the non-conference schedule. With a lull in intriguing games and as the team regroups, physically and emotionally, before the Big Ten season, it is a good opportunity to see where the team is so we can look back in a few weeks to see where they have gone, and how far they have come since last season.
For all the criticism they have received, so far this season at least, offense has been the strength of the team. It it isn’t aesthetically pleasing and occasionally bogs down, but it remains very efficient. The Gopher offense ranks 30th in the country which is better than last season and only slight worse than 1.129 points per possessions two seasons ago, the most efficient season of the Tubby Smith era. The Gophers scored only 1.074 points per possession against Virginia Tech. Though not matching Minnesota’s season average, the Gophers were the only team other than Syracuse to score more than a point per possession against the Hokies who possess the 39th best defense in the country.
The Gophers have obviously struggled from the three-point line, but they may not be quite as bad as you think in shooting 31.8% from behind the line compared to a national average of 33.8%. The real issue is inconsistency. In three games they have been well above average, in one game they were just about average, and in three games they have been well above average, and in four games they haven’t broken the 25% mark. Three-point shooting has unexpectedly only dropped .3 percentage points compared to a year ago despite losing Blake Hoffarber. The last two seasons have been the worst three-point shooting teams of the Tubby Smith Era. At the very least, they have recognized their shooting shortcomings and are attempting only a quarter of their shots from the three-point line compared to 28.6% last year and down from a peak of 35.6% in Tubby Smith’s first season.
Luckily, the Gophers have been an excellent shooting team in the inside, making 54.7% of their two pointers, by far the best of the Tubby Smith era. The second best season was last year when they made 50.7% of two point attempts. The loss of Trevor Mbakwe won’t help, but it may not be that bad either. He only took high percentage shots though he didn’t attempt that many shots, especially within the context of the offense.
Free throw-shooting continues to be a concern. The national average is a team free-throw shooting percentage of 67.9%, and the Gophers are actually above average at 68.4%. You may not think the Gophers shoot free-throws very well, and you’d be right, but a lot of other teams struggle too. The real concern is who can get to the line and what they do there. The Gophers currently rank 36th in the country in getting to the free-throw line. However, Trevor Mbakwe accounts for more than a quarter of the free-throw attempts. Rodney Williams has the second most attempts, but is shooting only 46%. Julian Welch and Andre Hollins, shooting 91% and 87% have made clutch free-throws at the end of the game which is great. Getting to the line more often and earlier in the game is better. The Gophers shot only 15 free-throws against Virginia Tech, a season low.
Tubby Smith promised to play faster at the beginning of the season, and the Gophers are playing faster, but only at the rate of an extra third of a possession per game, and good enough for 6th in the Big Ten. The 66.5 possessions per game are the most of the Tubby Smith Era. Minnesota had 68 or more possessions per game four times this season. The post-Al Nolen Gophers only had one such game. We may be back to grind it out time though without Mbkawe. Their were only 54 possessions against the Hokies, the slowest game in two seasons.
No, offense has not been the problem the last two years. It has been dreadful defense. After peaking from 2008-2010 when the defense ranked 21st and 40th, the Gopher defense ranked 62nd last season and is 80th so far this season.
Three-pointers have been far too easy this season with teams making 38.4% from behind the three-point line. If you haven’t noticed by now, three-pointer shooting is the soft spot in Tubby Smith’s defensive system and the lack of experience in the back court hasn’t helped. A Tubby Smith team will never shut down a three-point shooting team and it isn’t supposed to. Instead, it supposed to create turnovers and limit post-up opportunities. Last season the three-point defense struggled but they ultimately ended up average on the season. That should be the goal this season.
The real problem last season was that a defense designed to force turnovers did not. Minnesota ranked 299th in the country forcing turnovers on only 17.8% of possessions. They were 4th in the country in blocked shots but only 85th in steals. This season the Gophers are forcing turnovers on 24% of possessions, good for 70th in the country and rank 20th in blocked shots and 9th in steals.
If you want to be worried about the defense, look no further than right in front of the basket, because that is where opponents points are coming from. The Gophers saving grace last season was sturdy defense down low where they held opponents to 43.9% shooting on two point attempts, 29th in the country. This season that number has risen to 45.4% and 116th in the country. This is yet another symptom of young guards who don’t seem to be aware when to switch, when to let their player go, and what kind of help they have behind them. I expect this to get better but right now it is pretty tough to watch. Virginia Tech continued the trend of blowing by perimeter defenders and kicking the ball out for open three-pointers. Teams may be less likely to kick it back out without Mbakwe patrolling the paint, which might lead to more lay-ups.
In the random statistical anomaly that we have no control over category, the Gophers still can’t “defend” against free-throws. If you think that opponents make every free-throw against us, well, they do. The Gophers rank 322nd in free-throw “defense”. In the Tubby Smith era they have ranked 301st, 325th, 126th, and 344th. A little help from The Barnyard might help.
On the boards
At first glance, this is where the Trevor Mbakwe injury will hurt the most. At the time of his injury, he had 28% of the team’s offensive rebounds and a quarter of their total rebounds. Having a monster on the glass like that can take a lot of pressure off teammates, especially on the offense end. Why worry about missing if the ball will be grabbed off the rim for any easy dunk? So far the Gophers have grabbed 41% of their missed shots, ranking 17th in the country. From here on out rebounding will be team effort, and against Virginia Tech they still managed to grab 38.6% of their misses. Defensive rebounding remains an issue, and Mbakwe was never a great defensive rebounder. The Gophers rank 161st in the country with opponents rebounding their own misses on 32.1% of their possessions. This is on par with the last two seasons and much improved from Tubby Smith’s first two years.