With the non-conference season out of the way, and the Big Ten season tipping off against one-time conference favorite Michigan on Thursday, the last day of 2013 seems like the perfect time to look back on the what transpired during the last 13 Golden Gopher basketball games, and what that might portend for the next 18 conference games.
Based solely on Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings, the Gophers were projected to be a decent team. An overall ranking of 35th would probably put them on the right side of the bubble. After actually playing games, they are ranked 34th, and a middle of the pack finish in the Big Ten should still be good enough to make the NCAA tournament. More interesting is just how the Gophers arrive at their as expected overall ranking. Minnesota’s offense has performed better than expected, while their defense is relatively bad and might get worse.
There has been a remarkable shift in how the Gophers score points since Richard Pitino became head coach. The Gopher offense is averaging 1.139 points per possession this season, compared 1.124 last season, which is barely a rounding error. Anyone who has watched even a few minutes of Gopher basketball can tell this is a new offensive system. Last season, the offensive strategy consisted of scoring off offensive rebounds and pounding the ball inside. Considering the team’s turnover troubles, giving the ball away on 21% of possessions, getting a shot off was something of a moral victory. This season, the Gophers aren’t getting nearly as many offensive rebounds (36.4% offense rebounds vs. 43.8% last season), but they are shooting better inside, outside, and at the free-throw line. Most importantly, they are committing turnovers on only 16.3% of possessions. Not only are the Gophers shooting better, but they are getting more shots off. We’ve also witnessed a team with a coach who knows there is a three-point line. Nearly 40% of the team’s field goal attempts have been three-pointers, and they are 35.8% of those shots. Last season, Tubby Smith’s team attempted only 29.7% of their shots from behind the three-point line, and made only a third of those shot attempts.
For all the pre-season talk of the pressing and trapping defense, the Gophers aren’t forcing many more turnovers compared to last season. Opponents are giving the ball away on 20.9% of possessions this season compared to 20.2% last season. Obviously, the turnovers are more meaningful this season because the offense isn’t given the ball right back. Unfortunately, the Gophers are struggling to stop teams who don’t give the ball away, particularly on the inside. Last season, opponents made 42.8% of two point shots. This season they are making 48.4% of two point shots. Outside of Elliott Elliason, the team does not have an interior shot blocking presence. Strategically, the Gophers have the right approach. According to Hoop-Math.com, and conveniently charted by Big Ten Geeks, they are the second best in the conference at forcing opponents to take two point jumpers, the worst shot in basketball, and keeping them from taking shots at the rim, the best shot in basketball. However, opponents make 73.7% of their shots at the rim and 34.3% of their two point jumpers, 347th and 142nd nationally. Forcing an opponent to miss is only step one of keeping an opponent from scoring. Step two is to get the ball. Defensive rebounding continues to be a real concern for the Gophers, as they have gathered in only 70.6% of potential defensive rebounds this season, 8th in the conference. The mediocre defensive rebounding numbers are actually artificially inflated by playing teams that don’t even attempt to try for offensive rebounds, and instead scramble to get back on defense. If you ignore the 86% and 83% of defensive rebounds collected by the Gophers against Montana and Richmond, the 351st and 303rd ranked offensive rebounding teams in the country, Minnesota’s defensive rebounding is a real cause for concern.
Every newly hired college basketball coach, since the dawn of time, has claimed they will institute a faster, more exciting a brand of basketball. And since the dawn of time, particularly in the Big Ten, that hasn’t really happened. It is true that the Gophers are playing faster under Richard Pitino, averaging 67.2 possessions per game compared to 63.4 possessions per game in Tubby Smith’s final season, but this is hardly a revolution. Nationally the Gophers rank only 219th in possessions per game. That is better than 278th, but nothing to get excited about. There is a bit to get excited about on the offensive end though. The Gophers have shaved a second and half off the average length of their offensive possessions. Considering that last season’s team had countless artificially short offensive possessions because of turnovers, the offense is shooting much earlier this season.
- There is nothing wrong with Andre Hollins. He has always been a bit of streaky shooter, and he just happened to have one of those cold streaks in the middle of the non-conference season. He is slightly less efficient offensively this season, but he also didn’t have a once in a life-time 41 point game. He continues to distribute the ball effectively, has cut down his turnovers, is getting to the free-throw line more frequently, and is making two point shots more frequently. It is fine to have high expectations for a player who may finish his career as the Gophers all time leading scorer, but don’t expect perfection each and every night.
- This is my closing argument for why Austin Hollins should be the Gophers’ starting power forward.
King & Osenieks
All statistics are on a per game basis except effective field goal percentage (made three points are counted as 1.5 made field goals. In fewer minutes, and despite being one person instead of two, Austin Hollins has more points, rebounds, blocks, steals and assists along with fewer turnovers than Minnesota’s two more traditional power forward options. Austin Hollins is shooting better too. Austin Hollins is your first half MVP.
- Morehead State has to be wondering why they let Deandre Mathieu get away. His speed is sensational, and so are his statistics. When he is on the floor, more than a third of baskets are scored off an assist from Mathieu. He also leads the Gophers in effective field goal percentage despite being tiny. He commits turnovers a little too often, but considering how often the ball is in his hands, that is nothing to complain about.
- Maurice Walker has come a long way in terms of his overall health, but hasn’t come quite as far on the court. He is only averaging about 15 minutes per game, and has been fairly productive. He commits far too many turnovers and fouls to play much more than that, but with otherwise only Elliott Eliason providing a true post presence, where would this team be without him?
- Oto Osenieks is probably better than he was last season, but he is quickly regressing back to his poor shooting self. Last season he made an incredibly bad 2-26 three pointers. This season, he is 7-24 from behind the three-point line, but he was 4-6 in his first two games. Since then he is 3-18, and headed south. The good news is that he has finally learned to make baskets inside the three-point line, having improved his two point field goal shooting from 41.6% to 56%.
- Malik Smith isn’t a chucker! Sure, he shoots a lot, and is responsible for 23.4% of his team’s shots when he is on the floor, about the same as Austin Hollins. However, he is second on the team in effective field goal percentage and is tied with Andre Hollins for the team lead in made three pointers, on six fewer shots. If anything, Smith should shoot more.
- No one knew what to expect from Joey King, who was far from a star at Drake before transferring to the Gophers. Surprisingly, despite the step up in the level of competition, he is basically the same player. His shooting is a little worse but he is taking better care of the ball. Admittedly, the Gophers haven’t faced the toughest competition yet, so there is still a lot to learn about King’s transition to the Big Ten.
- Every Gopher who has played meaningful minutes (sorry Charles Buggs and Kendall Shell) has produced at least one point per individual possession used this season, except Wally Ellenson, who is hovering around .8 points per possession. He hasn’t found a way to put the ball in the basket, shooting 38.5% inside the three-point line and 22.2% from three-point range. The team desperately needs his 6’6” size, but he hasn’t played well enough to deserve much playing time.
- Elliott Eliason is a menace when he doesn’t have the ball, ranking in the top 125 nationally in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, and shot blocking. Unfortunately, he continues to be pretty invisible on offense, accounting for only 13% of shot attempts when is on the court. He is making only 46% of shot attempts, and that will need to improve to be a real offensive threat. He is doing a much better job of getting to the free-throw line and making free-throws. For that reason a lot, the Gophers need to get him more chances to score.
- Maverick Ahanmisi, perhaps because he barrels out of control into multiple defenders, gets to the free-throw line frequently, and made free-throws account for more than half his point total this season. Unfortunately, that also means he isn’t making many shots from the field. He is a great kid, and a great team captain, and it is remarkable that he has stuck around for four years considering all the crap he gets, but he isn’t a very good basketball player.