The next four Golden Gopher basketball games will not be for the faint of heart. After three straight games decided by three points, the Gophers start a stretch of four straight games against ranked teams, the first such four game stretch since 1996. The bad news is that these will likely be losses, and at least one of them is bound to be ugly. The good news is that the Gophers won’t hurt their NCAA tournament chances if they lose all of them, and will significantly improve their chances if they win any of them. The rough stretch starts Saturday afternoon at Michigan State.
Richard Pitino won his first Big Ten road game when the Gophers beat Penn State on Wednesday. However, we all know that the Nittany Lions do not enjoy much of a home court advantage. A trip to Penn State is probably the easiest road trip in the Big Ten. Even an occasional creaking bleacher at Welsh-Ryan Arena can be distracting, but the cavernous, sterile, and empty Bryce Jordan Center can create a nearly placid environment. The trip to Michigan State will be a rude awakening for the Gophers, who have had some shaky moments on their home floor.
One of the keys to winning on the road is controlling the crowd. That is no easy task in East Lansing, where the Gophers have not won in the better part of two decades. There have been decent Minnesota teams that crumbled within the first moments of the game. In 2009 the Gophers brought a 12-0 record to Michigan State, and had the game lost within the first few minutes. Dunk after dunk and three after three by the Spartans made the final 35 minutes of the game meaningless. If the Gophers aren’t careful, it could happen again on Saturday.
The problem is the press. It doesn’t work yet. Whether it is the personnel, the preparation, or the opponents, the pressing and trapping defense is doing more to hurt than help the Gophers. The defense, which is supposed to cause turnovers, does so on only 20% of possessions, ranking 84th in the country. Many of those turnovers are forced by half-court defense, and some are simple mistakes and aren’t forced at all. If the poor pressing defense was a net neutral, it would be fine to keep pressing. However, the press is creating too many opportunities for Gopher opponents get easy baskets. Minnesota opponents are taking 6.7% of their total field goal attempts within 10 seconds of a made Gopher basket, 239th in the country in making their opponents work to score off made baskets. This might not seem like a lot. However, that means that in a typical game, Gopher opponents have five to six uncontested trips down the court, in the one situation where the defense should have all the time in the world to get itself in position. As we all know, the Gophers will press off of missed field goals and missed free-throws too. On 26.7% of possessions, Gopher opponents take their first field goal attempt with at least 25 seconds still on the shot clock, ranking 243rd in preventing transition opportunities. In transition, opponents have an effective field goal percentage ((FGM + 0.5*3PM)/FGA) of 52% compared to 45.15% when not in transition. The real shame in all of this is that Minnesota’s half court defense is actually pretty good, when they have a chance to get back.
A poor press will be disastrous against the Spartans. Michigan State is not shy about pushing the ball up the court, with their average offensive possession only lasting 15.7 seconds, 30th shortest in the country. They rank 9th in the country in both field goal attempts and field goal accuracy within the first 10 seconds of a possession. Brandon Dawson is fast, huge, and a furious dunker. Keith Appling and Gary Harris are deadly three-point shooters. Even Adreian Payne, Michigan States future NBA center but questionable for Saturday’s game, knocks down three-pointers at a 43% rate, many trailing in transition. Easy baskets, especially in the situations when it should be most difficult to score, will get the crowd going, and get the Gophers in a lot of trouble. Michigan State wants the Gophers to press. So did Arkansas, and we saw how that worked out.
As Down with Goldy noted, there is value in pressing even if the Gophers aren’t very good at it. It establishes a style of play that can attract recruits, and that can pay dividends down the line. I’m of the school of thought that you do what you need to do to win now. Richard Pitino may one day have a team that can press an opponent into submission and run them off the court. This season’s team isn’t the one to do that, and Michigan State isn’t the team to try it against. It is time for the Gophers to abandon the press, at least against the Spartans, and to trust the underrated half court defense.