It hasn’t been a pretty ride recently in Gopher Land. After blowing through the gauntlet of games that opened the Big Ten conference season with a couple nice wins, the team has fallen on tough times recently with losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan State and an unnecessary nailbiting win over Iowa. The Northwestern loss stands out as particularly awful and, though it’s really not fair to the team to fault them for losing on the road to Wisconsin and Michigan State, anyone who watched the game last night against Sparty knows that the game was pretty much theirs for the taking. An awful first half by both teams left the door wide open, but Minnesota and its woeful offense was unable to turn things on and steal one on the road.
It was the continuation of a lengthy slump that has seen Minnesota score 62 or less points in four of its last five games. Prior to the game in Evanston Minnesota this season had scored less than 65 points in a game exactly zero times. ZERO. What has happened? A switch was turned in the abomination against the Wildcats and, outside of a Nebraska annihilation, the Gophers haven’t recovered. They look lost on offense, unsure of themselves and running scared. It’s a sad, unimpressive state of affairs.
That said, there is still plenty of time to right the ship. It’s far from the free fall we’ve grown accustomed to the last few years, and the upcoming game against Illinois offers the perfect opportunity for the Gophers to come out, lock down a victory, and set the tone for the final stretch of the season. With that in mind, I put together four things that need to change for the Gophers to avoid exacerbating the recent slump.
1. Get the ball to Trevor Mbakwe
Remember the days when the Minnesota offense used to deploy the “post-up”? It was an antiquated, old-school approach where a guard would pass the ball inside to a forward who had position on the defender, thus giving him the opportunity to attack the basket from close range. It seems like so long ago that they’ve used it I can barely remember what it looks like.
The Gophers have gone away from one of their best weapons, which is Trevor Mbakwe. Here you have a guy who, while undersized, has made a name for himself by getting to the basket and cashing in, or at least getting to the line. He’s known nationally as a feared forward. USE HIM. USE HIM A LOT. In the first five games of the conference season (when the Gophers used to actually score), Mbakwe attempted at least seven shots in four of them and racked up at least 11 points in each except one. The lone exception was against Northwestern at home when he didn’t need to play because it was a blowout (ah, memories). He also scored 15 points from the three throw line in those five games. Since then he’s attempted more than six shots only once and hasn’t reached double figures since the Northwestern road game.
It’s mind boggling to me when I see the offense standing around while Mbakwe has perfectly good position just waiting for the ball. But no one gives it to him. Instead they’ll run their patented “pass the ball around the arc” offense for 30 seconds before hoisting up a low-percentage shot. Good things happen when you get the ball into the post, and the Gophers have one of the more athletic forwards in the conference. Why is he not getting the ball more? It’s not like the team is a supremely talented shooting team. Mbakwe needs to start seeing the ball more for things to open up.
2. Stop standing around on offense
I just touched on this but, my lord. This offense is just about the most pathetic thing I’ve seen on the court in a long time. It’s just putrid. And my biggest gripe is that this is the exact same half-court set we’ve seen for years – I don’t have much confidence that it’s going to change. However, it’s been particularly awful in the last few weeks where things have basically come to a standstill. It’s almost as if the team WANTS to play in a half-court set. There’s just one problem: they have no idea what they’re actually doing out there. There is no quick passing, no cuts, no back picks … nothing. They stand around passing the ball back and forth until Joe Coleman decides he wants to drive. Sometimes he’s successful but often he’s not.
The Gopher defense is so good that it doesn’t take much offense for this team to make every game winnable. Can you imagine what the score would have looked like against Michigan State had they even the slightest clue about what to do with the ball? They would have been up by 20 points at halftime. Instead, they went into the half having scored 20 total points. This is the exact same funk they ran into last year when they went into the tank, though they have flashes of being able to break out of it. Again, they hadn’t scored less than 65 points ALL SEASON until they went on the road to Northwestern, when they caught some sort of virus. And it’s not like we haven’t seen them succeed and score a lot of points. Not even a month ago they went on a stretch against Illinois, Indiana and Michigan where they scored 88, 81 and 75 points. That’s a lot of scoring. Which leads me to my next point…
3. Push the ball in transition
This is what made the Gophers so dangerous earlier this season. Not only could teams not keep up with Minnesota, but the Gophers were really, really good at converting when they pushed the ball. Joe Coleman is a stud when he’s on the run and attacking the basket. Rodney Williams can get to the hoop in about four steps from half court when he’s in a full sprint. Everyone is super athletic and likes to move in transition. So why have they gotten away from it?
They got away from it after the Michigan and Indiana games, which is strange. Those are two teams that actually do well on the run and will let you play as fast as you want. But just because it didn’t work against them doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. With the exception of the Nebraska game (which provided SOME hope of recovery), Minnesota has almost completely abandoned up-tempo basketball, and it’s completely hamstrung their attack. Their half-court offense sucks, and if they’re trying to play in that type of environment then it’s going to be a slow grind. I’ve seen it time and again where the team will have an opportunity to get out in transition and Andre Hollins will deliberately pull it back. GET UP THE COURT AND MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. The Gophers have to start to pick up the tempo and use their athleticism to beat teams down the court. It’s worked in the past.
4. Take care of the freaking ball
I’m not holding my breath on this one, since it’s been a point of contention for far too long, but if the Gophers want to ensure victories down the road (and on the road) they need to start taking of the ball. They currently sport the conference’s worst turnover margin and have given the ball away 23 more times than they’ve taken it away. If there’s one thing that will doom teams in college basketball it’s turnovers. Turnovers mean more chances to score for the other team and more points you need to subsequently score in order to keep up. Teams will turn the ball over, yes, but the Gophers average 13 turnovers a game, which is just pathetic. Not even Penn State turns it over that much.
So now what?
A couple of the points above, namely #2 and #4 are just pipe dreams and come as a result of coaching. Tubby’s tenure here has been marked by strong defense and athletic players who have no semblance of an idea on offense and turn the ball over way too much. However, #1 and #3 are legitimate changes that can and should happen … right now. Mbakwe needs to see the ball more. Much, much more. He is the team’s best threat for points inside and is really good at getting to the hoop. And him having the ball opens up so many more options on offense. My problem is that it’s not like he’s never open. He frequently has great position on his defender. Seriously, against Illinois count the number of times he calls for the ball with position and how many times a guard will hesitate to get him the ball. It’s sickening.
The Gophers also just need to speed up. For better or worse they’ve never been a good half-court team, but that seems to be what they’re trying for these days. They deliberately slow the game down but don’t know what to do with the game once it’s slowed down. They don’t run a smart offense and they don’t create high-percentage opportunities for themselves. “Think Less, Act More” needs to be this team’s mantra. Until they start to play like they did earlier in the season, with aggressiveness, then it will be hard for them to turn the tide on what has been a dismal stretch for the team.