No one wants to play in the N.I.T. but some teams don’t want to play more than others. The first round of this tournament, more than deciding which teams are good at basketball, decides which teams care about playing more basketball. It took the Golden Gophers about 30 minutes to decide they didn’t want their season to end against High Point. Minnesota, despite some sleep-walking, was never in any real danger of an embarrassing season ending loss. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, trailed Utah for 36 minutes, sometimes by double digits. Then they started caring and making three-pointers, and eventually won by 12. Now that we have found two teams that care, we too can focus on basketball.
The St. Mary’s Gaels out of the West Coast Conference were never much of a threat to make the NCAA tournament this season. They lost three games in a row to South Carolina, Hawaii, and George Mason, and all three were bad losses. The WCC had only two other teams worthy of NCAA tournament consideration, and the Gaels had to win all four of their games against Gonzaga and BYU to have a chance of their own to make the tournament. Instead, they were swept by the Bulldogs and Cougars, and eventually finished their conference season 11-7.
If you ever wondered how the Gophers would play if they played as slow as possible, you’ll enjoy watching the Gaels. Saint Mary’s takes their time on offense, taking the 29th longest in the country to shoot or commit a turnover. For perspective, that is just a bit slower than Northwestern, and just a bit faster than Wisconsin. They can be a bit prone to turnovers, giving the ball away as often as the Gophers. On possessions that the Gaels don’t give the ball away, the Gophers will need to be prepared to play defense for the entirety of the shot clock. When they finally shoot, they try to dump the ball inside to Brad Widlow, a wide-bodied 6’9” center who is a classic post-center. He makes 57% of his two-point shots, and is also an excellent rebounder. While the Gaels try to shoot inside often, they would be much better served taking more three-point shots. As a team, they make only 48.7% of their two-point shots, ranking 167th in the country. Of their five players who shoot the most frequently, only Widlow makes more than half of his inside shots. Even though it isn’t the focus of their offense, Saint Mary’s has the potential to do real damage from the outside, where they make 38% of their three-pointers, 47th in the country. Stephen Holt, the 57th most efficient player in the country, shoots nearly 44% from the three-point line, and gets to the free-throw line often. That is a recipe for a lot of points when he is on, and Holt has scored 20 or more points seven times this season. He can be streaky, and also scored in single digits eight times this season. Joining the three-point barrage are James Walker and Kerry Carter, who both made more than 36% of their outside shots.
The Gaels defense, much like the Gophers defense, kept them out of the NCAA tournament. They can’t stop their opponents from scoring in the paint, which is good news for the Gophers. Only eight teams in the country allow more two-point field goal attempts, and they rank 200th in two-point field goal defense. The Gael’s poor defensive rebounding and shot blocking lead to a lot of easy shots down low. They don’t allow a lot of three-point attempts, but judging by their perfectly average three-point field-goal defense, it isn’t because their perimeter defense is particularly special.
When the Gophers win, it isn’t because they can stop anyone. They win almost in spite of their defense. They shouldn’t have much problem scoring against Saint Mary’s. If they can force the Gaels to miss a few shots, the Golden Gophers basketball season should continue.