After a thrilling come from behind victory over a traditional Big Ten powerhouse, the Golden Gophers answered several questions lingering from the non-conference season, and raised the biggest question of all. How good can this team be?
Is this team different?
Based on a reasonably large sample size, the answer has to be yes. Over the years, each Tubby Smith team has had a distinct character flaw. The first season or two it was slow starts that were too much to overcome, despite stellar play late in games. In recent seasons, it was starts and slow fades that led to the evaporation of double digit leads in the second half. This season’s team isn’t flawless, but it does have character. This team can counter-punch. For the third time this season, the Gophers lost a comfortable lead, but bounced back to win a game. Minnesota teams aren’t known for their mental toughness, until now.
Can the Gophers win without outside shooting?
Minnesota is not a good three-point shooting team, and at times can be dreadful. Their 37.5% three-point shooting percentage was actually well above their season average of 32.4%. And the Gophers beat a top 20 team in rather convincing fashion. So can they win without outside shooting? Yes, as long as they are facing a man to man defense. The Spartans, rather stubbornly, didn’t play a zone, and the Gophers only attempted eight outside shots. If the Gophers aren’t shooting from the outside it generally means they are finding their shots elsewhere. For the Gophers that was in and around the rim, where they made 20 of 32 shots in the paint.
Is Andre Hollins the real deal?
Unequivocally, YES! The sophomore point guard is simply better in big games. We first saw this in his 20 point outburst against Wisconsin and again and again in the Big Ten tournament and NIT last season. He had 41 points against Memphis, his hometown team. Against Michigan State, he had 22 on 10 shots, another incredibly efficient performance. Throw in his six assists, and Hollins had a role in 34 of Minnesota’s 76 points.
Does size matter?
There was a bit of concern by yours truly if Minnesota’s best line-up, with Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe on the court, would be able to compete against bigger Big Ten teams. There aren’t many bigger than the Spartans, who will regularly go 6’10”, 6’9″, 6’6″, a far cry from Minnesota’s front-line of 6’8″, 6″7″, and 6’4″. Size didn’t matter. The Gophers scored at will, and at times made the Spartans look silly when they tried to score inside (Adrian Payne, I’m looking at you). Derrick Nix went only 5-15 from the floor, Adrian Payne was only 2-6. As a team, the Spartans only made half their shots in the paint and only 44% of their two point shot attempts. Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe, were more than adequate against Spartans interior defense despite their relative lack of size.
Should we worry about rebounding?
Why yes, you should worry about rebounding but not too much. A cursory review of the Michigan State game showed consistently poor positioning by the Gophers when trying to corral defensive rebounds. All too often they were too far under the basket, which is a great place to be to catch a made-shot but not so great a place to be to catch a missed shot. As a result, the Spartans rebounded 39% of their own missed shots, a percentage that rarely leads to victory. If a team expects to rebound that poorly defensively and still win, they need to make up for it at the other end, and the Gophers did that, again. The Gophers grabbed 46.7% of their own rebounds, tied for the most given up by the Spartans since 2010. Even with that masterful work on the offensive glass, the Spartans still had an extra 10 field goal attempts.
Are turnovers behind the turnaround?
The Gophers could not take care of the ball during their first seven games, seemed to solve it their next seven, and then had a relapse during the first three-fourths of the game against the Spartans. Minnesota’s 16 turnovers, on nearly a quarter of possessions, were largely offset by the Spartans own ball-control issues, but kept the game closer until the final run. In what continues to be an odd but encouraging pattern, the Gophers seem to be able to clamp down on their own turnover problems at crucial times. The Gophers recorded their last turnover of the game with 11:55 left in the second half. At that time the Gophers trailed 52-54. In the next nearly 12 minutes, the Gophers outscored Michigan State 24-9, and forced six Spartan turnovers. The relative improvement in taking care of the ball and making sure opponents don’t continues to keep the Gophers in games that would otherwise get out of hand.
How good can this team be?
I hesitate to write this, especially after the last two seasons and the annual disappointment that is Minnesota sports in general, but we may have Big Ten championship caliber team on our hands. The Spartans are built to beat the Gophers and couldn’t. The Gophers match up well against the other title contenders. Obviously there are 17 games left, including nine on the road, where Big Ten championships are always decided. The Gophers have a long way to go, but they are on the right road.