The Golden Gophers finally played their much-hyped game against the much better Cardinals, and the result was much of what we expected. Louisville dominated on both ends of the floor, and it was a bit of a minor miracle that the Gophers kept the game relatively close. After the first day of the season, Louisville, at least according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistical models, is the best team in the country, with the best offense and the third best defense in the country. They are really, really good, and Minnesota won’t play another team that good until late February against Wisconsin.
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For the Gophers to have any shot at an upset, they needed to limit easy scoring chances and extra scoring chances for the Cardinals, and the Gophers mostly did that. They were even with Louisville on the offensive boards, and only outscored by 5 on turnovers. The Gophers are one of the most turnover prone teams in the country, and Louisville is one of the best at forcing turnovers. Turnovers and offensive rebounds were prerequisite for an upset, but the Gophers still had to make some shots and keep Louisville off the free-throw line. Minnesota failed in both areas.
We’ll start with free-throws, which Louisville attempted an absurd number of. In term of free-throw rate, which compares free-throw attempts to field goal attempts, the Cardinals attempted twice as many free-throws than the national average. Free-throws, despite how difficult they can be, are free opportunities to score. Louisville had 42 attempts at the line, and made 29, compared to Minnesota’s 20-33. Both teams missed the same number of free-throws, but Louisville’s avalanche of attempts put the Gophers in a big hole.
Louisville out shot the Gophers, but it wasn’t so much the actual shooting, which wasn’t great by either team, but the circumstances of the shooting which doomed the Gophers. Both Pitinos claim they want to play fast, though just because a coach thinks he wants his team to play fast doesn’t mean it should play fast. The game featured 78 possessions, more than any Gophers game last season, and the shorter the possessions, the worse it got for the Gophers. In possessions lasting less than 10 seconds, which should be the best scoring opportunities, Minnesota had an effective field goal percentage of 41.2. In possessions lasting longer than 10 seconds, it was closer to 50%. Louisville, on the other had an EFG% of 84.6 in transition, and around 38 when they were forced to run an offense. When the game turned into a track meet, the Gophers didn’t have a chance.
When two teams with similar strategies play each other, the better teams wins almost every time. Louisville is not just comfortable playing in an up-tempo, full court game, they thrive in that sort of game. Minnesota’s press and speed will make life difficult against some slower teams this season. When they play the few betters teams that also like to run, they would be well advised to slow down and hope for the best.