It’s not like we didn’t know things would be different when Richard Pitino came to town. Heralded as a guy who likes his teams to run, who has takes a fairly sophisticated approach to the game and prefers guys who can shoot well, it was understood that this year’s Gophers would be a departure from the elements of Tubby Ball that we’d gotten accustomed to. Less interior play, harassing defense and improved fundamentals were expected. And so far, at least, that’s been the case.
Of course it’s all just speculation until we see guys actually take the court, but 11 games into the season we’ve definitely seen some identifiable characteristics of the Pitino-era Gophers start to take shape and it’s a good bet that these will continue to define Minnesota going forward:
1. A decided focus on outside shooting
Both Tubby and Richard brought guys in to fit their systems, but it’s clear that this year’s Gophers are more of a shoot-first, ask-questions-later type team. Running at least a three-guard system (sometimes four or five), the Gophers always have a threat from the field on offense. Players like Andre and Austin Hollins, Dre Mathieu and Malik Smith give Minnesota clear weapons away from the basket and the offense spends far fewer minutes running through its post players. Of course, this is also a product of having a dearth of talent in the front-court, but even with guys like Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker manning the post, the guards are the star of the show.
Tubby’s offense took a more methodical, bruising approach, and with guys like Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams on the floor, it was easier to score inside anyways. But there was also a smaller focus on letting guys open up the offense away from the basket, and things quickly went south when the inside game was taken away. So far, the addition of more talent that can hit an open jumper has given Eliason and Walker some breathing space and made the offense that much more dynamic. Will it be more effective in the long run? That remains to be seen. The inside game under Smith was consistent and effective, but I really like the skill set that a good shooting offense brings to the table.
2. Improved free throw execution
Perhaps it was a product of having fewer shooters on the team that led to erratic free throw behavior, but through 11 games it’s clear that the Gophers are a much better free throw shooting team under Pitino than they were under Smith. At times last year it was simply brutal to watch Minnesota at the line, and in games that are often decided by single digits, leaving 10 or more free points at the line is inexcusable.
Under Pitino, the Gophers find themselves as the leader in Big Ten free throw percentage, connecting on a cool 78% of their attempts. They have more shooters, yes, but that doesn’t always translate to free throw success. Last year’s Gophers under Smith, for comparison, finished 9th in the Big Ten at 69% from the line and had three games where their missed free throw tally was greater than their losing margin. That’s huge.
3. Better ball security
This is likely to change with better teams coming up on the schedule, but in terms of an eye test the Pitino Gophers are much better at taking care of the ball than their predecessors. Through 11 games they’re 4th in the conference in turnover margin at +3.55, which is up there with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan. In fact, they’re third in the conference in forcing turnovers, which can be attributed to an intense defensive set, not to mention an improvement in holding onto the ball.
Under Smith, the Gophers were consistently at or near the bottom of the conference in turnover margin. Their 9th place finish last year was the high-water mark in the last three years of Smith’s tenure, and they ranked dead last in ’10-’11 and ’11-’12. Turnovers don’t always directly lose games, but they certainly don’t help win them either.
4. The apparent ability to successfully inbound the ball
I’m not sure there’s a stat that shows how well a team executes inbounds plays in college basketball, but anyone who watched the Gophers closely over the past few years likely added a few gray hairs watching Tubby’s teams try to get the ball into play. Seriously, it was an adventure on almost every contested inbounds play when the Gophers needed to get the ball in; it was utter chaos.
Pitino’s players are calmer, more confident and seemingly much better equipped to get the ball in. It’s almost like they know exactly what they’re doing when they need to get it done. It’s a simple eye test, but at this point Richard seems to at least have a good idea of what it takes to not only avoid a 5-second call, but even get the ball in or near hoop out of an inbounds.
There are more differences, certainly, but the above have stood out in the 11 games we’ve seen so far in the Pitino era. It’s almost a 180 from the Tubby Smith days, which were successful in their own right. But so far the Gophers appear less prone to mental lapses, better at executing on a consistent basis, and better equipped to avoid offensive droughts. Of course, with the Big Ten season just around the corner, it’s entirely possible that things may change, but for now things are clicking at a fundamental level.