The Gophers couldn’t find open shots last time.

Golden Gophers 16-6 (4-5) vs. Iowa 11-1 (3-6)

7:30 PM CST at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City

TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1500 AM

Minnesota beat Illinois, in part, because of unselfish basketball. Players made the extra pass, looked to get their teammates involved, and did not settle for poor shots. A couple of weeks ago, the Gophers lost to Iowa because they made the extra pass, deferred to their teammates, and would only settle for the “perfect” shot. Unselfishness is good, to a point, and at that point, every offense needs a player who will take charge and score on his own.

Among the unforeseen consequences of Trevor Mbakwe’s injury is the unselfishness of the Golden Gopher’s offense. Gone are the days of dumping the ball into Mbakwe and letting him go to work. Without any great dribble-penetrators, the Gophers are dependent on passing to score. Minnesota ranks 11th in the country in assist rate, the percentage of made baskets that are the results of an assist, at 64.1%.

As the following chart shows, “unselfish” teams tend to have more efficient offenses than “selfish” teams. However, three of the top 10 most efficient offenses have poor assist rates. Those teams have the players that don’t need any help to score, the kind of players the Gophers generally lack.

I bring this up because of the offensive melt down most of us were unfortunate enough to witness in the last 23 or so minutes of the first Iowa game this season. No one wanted to shoot and everyone wanted to pass, and the result was some ugly basketball. It got to the point that a contested three-point attempt early in the shot clock was a smart decision because there was at least an opportunity to score on an offensive rebound.

Zone defenses are generally designed to take away scoring opportunities near the basket. Ball handlers are usually covered by two defenders, and post players usually face an automatic double-team. Of course, zones have their weaknesses, especially when they are forced to move. This can be achieved by either driving or by quick passing, and most effectively by  doing both. An offensive team must engage in a balancing act between selfishness and selflessness, and where the Gophers so dramatically failed against Iowa. There was passing but it was not crisp or productive. Despite this, there were seemingly countless opportunities for a Gopher to be assertive and take a shot or drive a lane, and they didn’t. I don’t know if it was youth, lack of preparation, or fear, but the Gophers did not handle Iowa’s zone well at all. The Gophers have not faced long stretches of zone since the Iowa game, and I am not sure why. They still aren’t a very good shooting team, and until they show they can score consistently against a zone, they should expect to see some more of it.

Minnesota’s ineptitude was especially concerning given the atrociousness of Iowa’s defense. The Hawkeyes were one of the worst defensive teams in the Big Ten before they gave up 104 points to Indiana over the weekend. Now they are by far the worst defense in the Big Ten, giving up 1.134 points per possession in conference play. If the Gophers are prepared to face a zone, and they have to be by now, there should be plenty of opportunities to score.

Despite how awful the Gophers looked at The Barn during the first Iowa game, they still had a chance to send the game to overtime after a free-thow meltdown by the Hawkeyes. They made only 14-24 from the free-throw line for the game, but their 14 made free-throws exceeded the Gophers 10 total free-throw attempts. That statistic alone demonstrates the main difference in how the teams played the game. The Hawkeyes attacked the basket, and even though they didn’t shoot much better than the Gophers, they were rewarded at the line. Meanwhile, the Gophers hung back, and seemed content to toss up long shots as the shot clock expired. They attempted a season high 23 three-points and only made four. That is not the way to attack a zone or win a game.

The Gophers new line-up should be better prepared to beat a zone. Julian Welch is more decisive than Maverick Ahanmisi. Austin Hollins is more eager to attack the basket, and all Joe Coleman does is drive to the hoop. If the guards do what they need to do, opportunities will be there for the post-players. The Gophers could be without Elliot Elliason due to an apparently not-serious ankle injury, but he won’t be a big loss playing a team like Iowa. If he is out, Ralph Sampson will need to stay mentally and physically in the game, and be decisive for once in his life.

The win over Illinois gave the Gophers a bit of much needed breathing room. The Iowa game isn’t a must win, but if they lose, Nebraska will be a must win game. The best way for the Gophers to reduce the pressure is to keep on winning.