Learning was always going to be a big part of this season for the Golden Gophers. Players are learning a new style of play in new roles. A new coach is inevitably learning how to win in a much more difficult conference. We are all learning that college basketball can be fun again. On Saturday, we’ll learn about the teams ability to beat decent teams, on the road no less.
Saturday evening’s game against the Richmond Spiders, not televised but streaming here and other cheaper and more illegal websites, figures to be the most difficult non-conference game on the US mainland. It is the second half of a home and home series. Last year the Gophers beat the Spiders by 15 points at home. The Spiders are 2-0 on the season, beating Delaware at home by two and Belmont by 8 also at home.
The Spiders return the core of last season’s team. Kendall Anthony, a smaller and faster Dre Mathieu, is much more of a scorer than a distributer despite his diminutive size. Cedrick Lindsay plays the role Andre Hollins did last season, responsible for both scoring and involving his teammates. Terry Allen, a 6’8” power forward, was an efficient player last season in very limited action, and has maintained that efficiency despite playing twice as many minutes on average this season. The key difference this season is that Derrick Williams, even though he returned for his senior season, is playing nothing like he did last season. You probably remember Williams as their very wide and somewhat shorter center for Richmond that scored 16 points against the Gophers. Battling injuries, he has played only 31 minutes. He played more in the second game than the first, and will probably play more in the third than the second, but he is not in mid-season form.
Without their best interior player, the Spiders will be even more dependent on their guards and outside shooting. Last season outside shooting was Richmond’s strength, as they ended the season 27th in the country in three point percentage. This season, they have made only 15% of their three point attempts, 327th in the country. Richmond runs the Princeton offense, so they are not completely dependent on outside shooting, but the Gophers may be able to cheat into the passing lanes to stop backdoor cutters if the Spiders are not an outside shooting threat. Gopher opponents have attempted 46% of their shots outside the three-point line. If the Spiders are forced to play primarily on the perimeter, they’ll have a difficult time keeping the game close if they can’t find a way to make an outside shot.
On the road, inevitably, style and statistics aren’t as important as coaching and composure, and these are still question marks. We haven’t seen how the still congealing Gophers will handle adversity or a hostile environment. Richard Pitino hasn’t had to make a game changing or a game saving decision. We do know Pitino tries to keep his best players on the floor and is quick to call a time out to quell an opponent’s momentum. Both are steps in the right direction. Inevitably though, at some point a strategy will need to be changed or a match-up exploited. When that happens, or doesn’t happen, we’ll finally know something about the team and their coach.