Two-thirds of the Big Ten season has gone by, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers are still the worst defensive team in the Big Ten. It is too late in the season to hope that they’ll become a good defensive team, probably too late to hope they’ll become average, and will soon be too late to think they can get out of the defensive cellar. The Gophers are not going to win any games because of their defense. However, there is a glimmer of hope that the defense, on occasion, will be just good enough to allow Minnesota’s offense to win. Sunday evening at Northwestern would be a fine time for that to happen.
In the world of advanced basketball statistics, the one point possession mark is the dividing line between good and bad. Scoring one point per possession (making a two-pointer every other trip down the court) is usually good enough to win. Keeping a team from scoring a point per possession is also usually good enough to win. Northwestern, still historically bad on offense, just barely cracked the one point per possession barrier against the Gophers in January, and they just barely won. Minnesota’s defense wasn’t good, but in most games, and with Minnesota’s above average offense, that type of defensive performance would be just good enough to win. Unfortunately, that was not an average game, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. If Andre Hollins was healthy, the Gophers win. If Malik Smith has his second-worst game of the season instead of the worst game of the season, the Gophers win. If two fouls are called in the closing seconds, or if the Gophers make two lay-ups in the closing seconds. The Gophers win.The Gophers didn’t win. The offense just wasn’t there that day. The Gophers didn’t make outside shots (only 3-14 from behind the three-point line) and they didn’t get to the free-throw line often enough (only 9 attempts. The Gophers also didn’t have Andre Hollins, who would have helped immensely in both of these areas.
Reintegrating a player into a team after an injury is a process. Strategies change while they are gone, and they have to change back when they return. Players who were in new roles need to go back to their old roles, or assume entirely new roles. Often, the injured player isn’t 100%, and it can be difficult for them and their teammates to adjust to their limited capabilities. Andre Hollins probably isn’t completely recovered from his sprained ankle, but he is definitely close. His 22 points against the Badgers were encouraging, but nothing was as encouraging as his eight free-throw attempts. This shows that his explosiveness and ability to get to the rim have returned, and as Hollins can get back to his old self, so can the Gophers.
Northwestern has a very good defense, ranked 11th in the country, and fifth in the Big Ten during conference play, almost entirely because they make it exceedingly difficult for teams to make shots. The best way to beat a team that defends shot attempts well is to take shots that are illegal to defend, at the free-throw line. Minnesota’s free-throw rate of 8.0 (free-throw attempts divided by field goal attempts x 100) was the second lowest by any Northwestern opponent this season. Andre Hollins has a free-throw rate of 53.1 on the season, and as you all know, he is a great free-throw shooter too at 81%. He is exactly what the Gophers needed against Northwestern earlier this season, and he is exactly what the Gophers need on Sunday.
The Gophers didn’t play very well on that miserable Saturday in January, and it was still almost good enough to win. If everyone, on both teams, plays the same on Sunday as they did in January, and Andre Hollins plays like himself, the Gophers should have their first win at Northwestern since 2008. But if the Gophers lose one their three final winnable games, they’ll need an upset or two to make the NCAA tournament.