A guide to the Gopher defense

After Trevor Mbakwe’s injury and annual disastrous start to conference play, the goal for the season changed from making the NCAA tournament to making something, anything out of a clearly lost season. There was suddenly more playing time available in a consequence-free environment. Thanks to Ralph Sampson III’s injury and absence during the post-season, we saw this season’s team eight months early. Whether it is maturity, better communication, trust, or simply time together, that no longer lost season has led to a significant improvement in the Golden Gophers’ defense, and that defense could still be better.


The offense hasn’t been that bad, and the defense hasn’t been that good.

Even when it isn’t the case, the Gophers under Tubby Smith have been lauded for their defense. When executed well, it can be suffocating, but too often it has been more of a weakness. The Gophers offense is rarely a thing of beauty, but in 2010, 2011, and so far this season, the offense has actually been better than the defense. This assumption of the better defense seems to be based on aesthetic appeal instead of silly things like efficiency and effectiveness. The 2008-2009 season, when the offense tanked to 93rd nationally and the defense ranked 21st, is really the only season in which the offense was actually really bad and the defense was good to great.

The 2012-2013 season has been an eye-opening experience for all of us on both ends of the floor, with Minnesota’s offense improving from 64th to 13th and the defense from 48th to 17th. The offense has been great, but the defense has been more interesting. And ultimately, it will be the job of the defense to keep the team competitive in conference games. Bad shooting nights seem to happen a lot more often than bad defensive nights, after all.

The “Ball-line”: Strengths and weaknesses

Before we dive head-long into what is behind the defensive improvement, it seems worth discussing exactly what the Gophers do on defense. Tubby Smith’s much lauded and much maligned trademark is the “Ball-line” defense. The guiding principle could not be more simple. It is easier to score closer to the basket and harder to score farther from the basket. Given that guiding principle, it shouldn’t be surprising that the defense is designed to contest every two-point shot. It hopes to achieve this through two pillars: post double-teams and perimeter switches. The double-teams of post-players prevents open shots and can create turnovers from occasionally clumsy big men. Switching on screens ideally prevents guards from turning the corner and sailing in for open lay-ups.

Obviously, this defense has weaknesses, especially if not executed properly. Nearly automatic post double-teams can lead to open perimeter jump shots if the other perimeter defenders do not rotate to fill the space formerly occupied by the now double-teamer.  Switching on screens is only as effective as the now possibly mismatched defenders. If a slow and big defender gets caught defending a quick guard, that whole part about preventing easy shots close to the basket falls apart.

What does a good Gopher defense look like anyway?

If the Gophers defense is good, it is doing the following things:

  1. Preventing easy scoring opportunities on the inside
  2. Not getting burned, at least too badly, by three-pointers
  3. Forcing turnovers, especially off of blocked shots and steals off the interior double-teams

These three key criteria are behind Minnesota’s great defense during the non-conference season. The guiding principle of the defense is to make two-point shots difficult, and the Gophers have certainly done that. They allow opponents to make only 40.8% of their two-point shots, which ranks 23rd in the country. They also block 17.2% of shot attempts, which is seventh best in the country. Other than transition baskets, quality two-point shots are few and far between for Gophers’ opponents.

As KJ, king of all scatter-plots at the The Only Colors points out, there is no worse shot in basketball than two-point jump shots. “College basketball players convert 2-point jumpers at a lower percentage than 3-point jumpers, even though the 2-pointers are, you know, worth fewer points. All things being equal, a good offense will find ways to take more shots near the rim or beyond the arc and avoid shots in middle, with the converse being true for a good defense.”  Minnesota’s interior defense, especially the shot-blocking, has taken away close-in two-point shot attempts. Only 26% of opponents’ field goal attempts are at the rim, and nine percent of those are blocked. Those horribly inefficient two-point jumpers make up the plurality of opponents field-goal attempts, 43%, and 20% of those are blocked.  The remaining 32% are three-point shot attempts. Minnesota’s opponents make 30.6% of their three-pointers, 77th in the country. This is above average (nationally, teams make 33.3% of their three-point shots) but nothing too exciting. Three-point defense isn’t a problem though, which is a victory unto itself.

Minnesota’s turnover problems on offense can be maddening, and they have unfortunately overshadowed the defense’s return to their ball-hawking ways. The Gophers create a steal on 15.2% of possessions, 6th nationally, and turnovers on nearly a quarter of their opponents’ possessions, 29th nationally. A turnover’s worth is dependent on what it leads to, and for the Gophers, that has been lots of points. They may not get out and run as often as some Big Ten teams, but they are the most efficient Big Ten team in transition scoring 1.35 points per transition possession. The best offense, at least for the Gophers, is a good defense.

Where’s the real improvement?

By now it should be clear that the Gopher defense is probably pretty good and probably better than last season. I write probably because it is still pretty early in the season.  I see two big areas of improvement.

Forcing turnovers

Creating defensive turnovers and easy transition baskets had been a strength of the team this season, and that should be obvious to anyone who has seen the highlight reel dunks of Rodney Williams, Joe Coleman, and Austin Hollins. Forcing turnovers was the hallmark of the first Tubby Smith led Gopher team, when they forced the 25th most turnovers in the country. Then, those once plentiful turnovers disappeared. In Tubby Smith’s second season the Gopher defense ranked 46th in forced turnovers, 84th the season after that, 299th in 2010-2011, and 170th last season.

Limiting three-point shot attempts

Having soundly defeated the concept of rebounding margin, and successfully infiltrating ESPN (John Gasaway now gets to vote in their entirely meaningless Power Rankings) college basketball’s intelligentsia has now turned their attention to the concept of three-point defense, and found that three-point field goal percentage is a product of chance, but the percentage of field goals that are three-point field-goals does matter. It may be oversimplifying things a bit, but generally, the majority of three-point field goal attempts are open, which helps explain why teams generally make a higher percentage of their three-point shots than two-point jump shots. Minnesota’s opponents have made a lower percentage of their three-point shots, which is nice even if it isn’t the Gophers’ fault. The big difference has been the percentage of shots from behind the three-point line.

Tubby Smith teams always give up lot of three-point attempts, since that is what the defense is design to do. His Gopher teams have generally given up a comically large number of three-point attempts. Prior to this season, the lowest percentage of field-goals that were three-point attempts was 35% last season, 248th fewest in the country. This was a massive improvement over the previous season when opponents attempted 43.1% of their shots from behind the three-point line, third most in all of college basketball.   The previous three seasons hovered around 37% and ranked in the bottom 100 in preventing three-point attempts.

This season, the Gophers are allowing a below average percentage of three-point attempts. Only 31% of opponents’ shots are three-pointers, representing a rather momentous turnaround.

But why?!

Unfortunately, I don’t have a statistically satisfying, overarching reason for Minnesota’s improvement. The how is easier. The Gophers are limiting opponents opportunities to attempt shots. When teams do attempt shots, they have been forced to take them inside, where Minnesota’s defense is the strongest. Why this is happening is likely a product of experience and all of its byproducts like confidence, communication, and good old-fashioned teamwork.

Minnesota’s defense is quintessentially a team defense. It is not enough to just stay in front of one player. Players have the additional responsibility of covering for trapping teammates or being the trapper themselves.  They need to know how their teammates will react in specific situations. The best way to know when a teammate will switch on screens is to have seen them switch before. Last season’s then disaster gave Minnesota’s entire roster the valuable opportunity to have seen all this once before. When the players know how their teammates usually react, they know when to let them know when something different is going to happen. Watch the perimeter defense, and you won’t see many blown assignments. If somebody isn’t switching, their teammates know it. Finally, don’t underestimate the power of shared accountability. The players know they are in this together and maybe, just maybe all the drama and disappointment of the last few years has led everyone to do everything in their power to make this season different.

They could still be better

A turnover obviously ends a possession, but forcing a missed shot is only step one. Getting the defensive rebound is step two. So far this season, the Gophers have all too often forgotten about step two. Opponents have rebounded 35.5% of their missed shots. Even with significant improvement in the last four games, the Gophers still rank 272nd in defensive rebounding. This wouldn’t be too terrible if teams made the same percentage of their second or third shots on a possession, but they don’t. Second and third shot attempts are much more likely to go in. Throwing up ugly shots, and getting put back baskets is not a bad strategy to score against the Gophers, especially given the difficulty teams have scoring against the Gophers.

Rebounding tends to be one of those fixed statistics. Teams can either rebound or they can’t. Fortunately, the Gophers might not be one of those teams. Trevor Mbakwe, who still isn’t logging starter’s minutes, just so happens to be the 22nd best defensive rebounder in the country, securing 26.2% of opponents missed shots. He already leads the team with 7.2 rebounds per game despite having only played 45% of all available minutes. Rodney Williams is second on the team with 6.1 rebounds per game despite playing 70.8% of available minutes. Mbakwe should be capable of pulling down around 11 rebounds per game if or when he gains more playing time. That might not seem like a lot, but those few rebounds could account for keeping a few points off the board each game, and as we’ve seen in recent years, those few points can mean a few wins. If the defensive rebounding does not improve, the overall defensive picture could darken considerably.

 

Gophers related statistics, unless otherwise cited, are from http://kenpom.com/. Go spend $20 and get a year’s subscription.

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