There is more than one way to win a basketball game, and the more ways a team can, the more they will win. So far in this still very young college basketball season, the Gophers have shown the potential to win in diverse ways.
Last year’s Golden Gophers had to shoot well to win. They fouled too much to gain an advantage at the free-throw line. They gave the ball away far too often to ever win the turnover battle. Their decent field goal defense was hardly ever enough to stop the barrage of second, third, and fourth chances that allowed opponents to finally score. When they shot really well, they won, but because of their deficiencies in the other four factors, they still lost quite a few games when their shooting should have been enough to win. In Big Ten games last season, Minnesota was the third best shooting team, but had only the fifth best offense, and overall, was the 7th best team in the conference. There is more to basketball than making baskets.
Now, let’s fast forward to Minnesota’s last two games that counted. Like the NCAA tournament committee, and anyone who was alive from 1833-1837, we are going to pretend Franklin Pierce never happened. The Gophers beat Western Kentucky and UMBC, and didn’t crack the 50% mark effective field goal percentage, didn’t score more than a point per possession against Western Kentucky, and barely did against UMBC. However, neither game was ever in doubt.
Last season the Gophers were a very generous team, giving the ball away, and giving opponents extra chances because of poor defensive rebounding. In what may be an aberration, or may be the first signs of a welcome and season long development, the Gophers are finally valuing possessions. Despite too many turnovers against Louisville, the Gophers are giving the ball away on only 16.7% of possessions, which ranks 67th in the country. This is a substantial improvement from last season when they committed turnovers on 18% of possessions, and ranked 151 in ball security. Even against Louisville, when they committed turnovers on 23% of possessions, it doesn’t seem so bad considering Louisville forces turnovers on more than a quarter of their opponents possessions.
Minnesota’s defense is forcing more turnovers than all but 10 teams in the country, and caused both Western Kentucky and UMBC to commit turnovers on about a third of possessions. Offenses just can’t function if they can’t attempt a shot on a third of their possessions, and WKU and UMBC were pretty dysfunctional, even though UMBC managed to out shoot the Gophers both from the field and the free throw line and WKU had offensive rebounds on a fifth of their missed shots. And even Minnesota’s defensive rebounding has improved, allowing second chances on only 25% of missed shots, compared to 31% a season ago. Nate Mason has been a big part of this, ranking 81st out of 2197 division one players in defensive rebounding, despite standing barely six feet tall.
Eventually, the Gophers will have to put the ball in the basket more consistently, especially as their competition gets tougher. Last season, shooting gave them the best chance to win. This season, shooting could hold them back if it doesn’t improve. Minnesota’s effective field goal percentage ranks 212th in the country, between St. Bonaventure and Mount St. Mary’s, for a bit of perspective. Austin Hollins and Malik Smith were both capable shooters, so their departures might be part of Minnesota’s shooting woes. However, shot selection seems to be the biggest culprit. Too many Gopher shots wouldn’t have much of a chance to go in even if elite shooters were taking them. For whatever reason, Minnesota is falling in love with two point jump shots, and it is destroying their accuracy.
Two point jump shots are not only the most difficult shot to make, since they are usually well guarded, but they are also worth less points than often easier and more open three-pointers. There are 351 division one basketball teams this season, and 320 take fewer two point jump shots than the Gophers, and only 32 teams shoot two point jumpers less accurately than the Gophers. No Gophers has been more guilty of poor shot selection than Carlos Morris. Nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts are two point jumpers, and he is making only 28% of them. Morris is great near the rim, and serviceable beyond the three-point line. Right now, he should forget there is such a thing as a mid-range game.
There is good news in the midst of Minnesota shooting woes. Better shot selection might fix everything. The Gophers rank 8th in the country in field goal accuracy at the rim, making 80% of lay up and dunk attempts. Their three-point shooting isn’t spectacular, but it is above average. Unlike many parts of basketball, shot selection can be fixed as a season progresses, and Richard Pitino’s main focus should be teach his player the properties of a smart shot.
The season is very long, and a lot can change, but right now the Gophers seem to have the pieces to be a very good basketball team. They will reach their potential if they can find a way to be smart about where and when they shoot.