After playing three winless teams in three games, the Golden Gophers face their toughest test against the undefeated Richmond Spiders on Sunday evening at (venerable) Williams Arena. The Spiders won’t just be a better team than any the Gophers have played, but their style of play could pose special challenges.
Richmond’s Princeton style offense, similar to what Northwestern uses, is basketball jujitsu, using a defenses aggression against them. If a defender covers their man tightly, they are susceptible to back cuts and easy lay-ups. If they overcompensate by playing softer defense, it creates opportunities for three-point shots. The bad news is that Minnesota’s defense, stylistically, is susceptible to overplaying and giving up lots of three-pointers. The good news is that the Gopher defense appears to have finally learned proper positioning and communication, and breakdowns have been few and far between so far this season, and that trend will need to continue on Sunday.
The most successful strategy to stopping Richmond’s offense will be to keep them from ever getting it set up. The Gophers have been pressing and trapping after most made baskets, and should keep that up against the Spiders. Not only will this increase the likelihood of Richmond turnovers, but it will also give the Richmond offense less time to operate. When they do have time to operate, they can be deadly.
In their first three games this season, the Spiders have been averaging 1.11 points per possession, 22nd best in the country. This includes a 101 point outburst against UNC-Wilmington when they scored 1.49 points per possession. Nearly 45% of Richmond’s field goal attempts are from behind the three-point line, and they shoot 41% from out there. They live and die by the three, and if they get open, they can thrive. Their three-point shooting success has opened up the inside, where they are shooting 56.5%, and because their offense often gets defenders out of position they frequently get to the free-throw line too.
On defense, the Spiders have been an above average team defensively, but this likely has a lot to do with their competition. All three of their opponents are 283rd or worse offensively. Minnesota’s offense is the 29th most efficient in the country. Defense has not been Richmond’s strength in recent years, and they were 155th nationally last season. Their weaknesses have consistently been fouling too often and allowing offensive rebounds, two of Minnesota’s biggest strengths. Richmond ranks 211th in preventing free-throws, and that is against three terrible basketball teams.
In the wild, Spiders comes in shapes and sizes, and they also do on the basketball court. At times, their line-up may look like a bit of a freak show because there are two players without comparison. The first is Kendall Anthony, their point guard, second leading scorer, and so far a terror from behind the three-point line where he is 7-10. At only 5’8” and 140 pounds he is both quick enough to take advantage of scoring on back cuts and to force players to back off from him at risk of getting beat off the dribble. The other uniquely shaped player is Derrick Williams, who at 6’6” and 270 pounds is a load in the paint, and unafraid to shoot three-pointers when they are available. Darien Brothers, a completely normal shaped shooting guard, is averaging nearly 20 points per game in only 25 minutes per game. He is a very good shooter both inside and out, and is very careful with the basketball. Interior play is an obvious weakness for Richmond. Williams is the only player 6’6” or taller who plays meaningful minutes, and the only player 6’6” or taller who isn’t a freshman. That lack of size and experience will ultimately limit the Spiders success, despite their deep and often excellent back court.
The timing of the Richmond games couldn’t be better or worse. The Gophers obviously need a step up in the level of competition prior to playing some of the truly elite teams in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance that they will be more focused on beating Duke than on beating Richmond. As long as they stay focused, the should be fine.