Life on the bubble, and particularly life on the bubble in the Big Ten, is full of second, third, and fourth chances. The Minnesota Golden Gophers have yet another opportunity to save their season on Tuesday night when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to town for a nationally televised game. A rivalry that seemed to be on the verge of death a few years ago is once again alive and well. The Gophers ruined Iowa’s chance to make the NCAA tournament with an Austin Hollins buzzer beater a year ago. Iowa hopes to send the Minnesota to the NIT this year. College basketball is nothing without rivalries, and it is much better when those rivalry games matter.
No team is unbeatable in the Big Ten, especially this season when inexplicable outcomes seem like the norm, but Iowa will be especially tough for the Gophers to beat. They are bigger than the diminutive Gophers, faster too, and in a lot of ways just plain better. Earlier this season the Hawkeyes beat the Gophers by 21 in a game in which the Gophers played pretty well, and the Hawkeyes didn’t seem to break a sweat, in a fast paced and free-flowing game. Most Hawkeye games are free-flowing. Their offensive possessions are the shortest in the country, averaging barely 15 seconds before they hoist up a shot. They don’t always make their shots, but they are the best offensive rebounding team in the conference, so they get plenty of second and third shots, that they take right away too. It all adds up to the fourth best offense in the country, which could cause all sorts of problems for Minnesota’s 90th best defense.
It should come as no surprise that the Hawkeyes can run into trouble when their offense approaches average, and this tends to happen when their outside shots aren’t falling. Defending three-point shooting teams successfully has more to do with limiting shot attempts than it does in holding teams to a low three-point shooting percentage. Basically, the logic goes, offenses only take open three-point shots, so the fewer three-point shots allowed means the fewer open shots, and therefore better defense. Whether the ball actually goes in the basket is more a matter of luck. In Iowa’s wins, they usually take a lot of three-point shots. In their losses, they usually don’t. In the first meeting between the Gophers and Hawkeyes, Iowa went 9-20 from the three-point line. Many of Iowa’s three-point attempts come in transition, and it will be vitally important for the Gophers to get back on defense.
Richard Pitino has installed an offense that is much more free-flowing, and players have much more freedom to shoot when they feel like it. Taking open shots early in the shot clock is great as long as they go in. Unfortunately, if they don’t go in, and no one is rebounding or in defensive position, those early shots can turn into outlet passes for the opponent. We saw that against Ohio State, and we’ll probably see it again against Iowa if the Gophers aren’t careful. There is a fine balance between a reckless offense that creates scoring opportunities for the defense, and an offense that is too careful and gets bogged down with rushed shots late in the shot clock. The Gophers will need to slow the game down, but can’t ruin their own attempts to score in the process. Taking advantage of fast-breaks when the numbers are there, and making wise decisions when they are not, at the very least will prevent a blow-out.
The Gophers have demonstrated that they can find the right balance between playing fast and slow. They did it for the first 22 minutes against Ohio State on Saturday, before the pendulum swung into out of control territory. If they can play smart and under control basketball for 40 minutes against the Hawkeyes, they’ll live to play another day.