Five games into the Big Ten season, the Gophers are nationally ranked, have an above .500 record in conference play, and have two conference wins over ranked teams. They are clearly better than last year, and are Tubby Smith’s best Gopher team. Their top 10 ranking, blow-out win over Illinois, and near epic comeback at Indiana convinced many that the Gophers could be a great team. They may be a great team by the end of the season, but until they can control their turnover problems, they’ll have to be satisfied with being merely good. During Big Ten play, each Gopher turnover has cost the team an average of 1.778 points, and the turnovers show no signs of slowing down.
The Gophers turnover problems have existed throughout most of the Tubby Smith era. Only the 2009-2010 team ended the season in the t0p 100 in taking care of the ball. This season’s team ranks 245th nationally in valuing the basketball and is worst in Big Ten conference play, committing turnovers on 23.5% of their possessions. Minnesota’s turnovers are a team-wide problem. Of the 11 players that have significant playing time, all but three commit turnovers more frequently than 20.5% of the plays they are in the game, the national average. While the team as a whole needs to take care of the ball, the bench gives the ball away particularly generously. Oto Osenieks, for all his faults, is the only bench player who takes care of the ball. When Ingram, Eliason, and Ahanmisi are in the game together, it is semi-amazing the team can even attempt a shot.
If it feels like Austin Hollins never makes mistakes, you are on to something. He is the only Gopher in the top 500 in the country in taking care of the basketball. If it feels like Maverick Ahanmisi does nothing but commit turnovers, you are only slightly off. He commits turnovers on 30.5% of possessions when he is in the game. At this point Julian Welch is a much better option to handle back-up point guard duties. The best back-up point guard option at this point may be Austin Hollins, who not only takes care of the ball better than any of his teammates, but can also distribute the ball if necessary.
Not all turnovers are created equal, and some could even be considered not particularly bad. I will very rarely complain about charges. At worst a player is playing aggressively and attacking the basket. A turnover caused by a moving screen means that a screen was at least being set. Passes that sail out of bounds at least mean that the defense has a chance to get set up. Unfortunately, the majority of Minnesota’s turnovers are steals that lead to easy baskets. Even more unfortunate is that the Gopher giveaways are mostly self-inflicted. One would normally expect that the Gophers would commit the most turnovers against teams that typically force a lot of turnovers, and that they would have the ball stolen more by teams that typically record a lot of steals. Instead, the Gophers give the ball away to everyone, a lot.
In the chart above, the expected steal percentage and the expected turnover percentage are how often Gophers opponents have recorded steals or forced turnovers during the conference season. The Gophers have had the ball stolen more often and committed more turnovers than expected in every game other than at Illinois when they performed as expected. The Gophers were particularly bad against Michigan, a team that ranks 8th in the Big Ten in steals.
All these turnovers do not happen in a vacuum, and have real consequences in the outcome of games. Despite the horrible turnover problems, the Gophers still have the second best offense in the Big Ten, scoring 1.18 points per possession in conference play. When they don’t give the ball away, their offense is nearly unstoppable. In possessions that do not end in turnovers, they are scoring 1.5 points per possession.
The Gophers’ turnover-free offense exceeded 1.4 points per possession in every game except against Northwestern, when the dreadful 17 point first-half doomed them to a less-efficient offensive performance.
Turnovers aren’t only impacting the Gopher offense. They are also turning an otherwise good Gopher defense into something approaching mediocre. Despite being one of the better half-court defenses in the conference, the Gophers are allowing opponents to score 1.05 point per possession in conference play, which is 9th in the Big Ten. Once again, turnovers are the culprit. In possessions not immediately following a turnover, opponents are scoring only .992 points per possession. However, immediately following a turnover, Gopher opponents are scoring 1.27 points per possession.
It was points off turnovers that ultimately lost the Michigan and Indiana games, as both teams averaged better than 1.58 points off each Gopher turnover. Somehow, Michigan State’s offense was actually worse on possessions following Gopher turnover than they were for the game as a whole.
The turnover problem might be fixable. Keeping the most turnover-prone players off the floor, at least at the same time, would give the team’s already efficient offense a chance to work. Even throwing the ball out of bounds instead of to an opponent could limit their damage. By the time the Gophers play Northwestern on Wednesday, they’ll have had six days off. Let us hope they have learned to take care of the ball this week.