New York City ended up being a neutral experience for the Gophers. They didn’t when any marquee games, but they didn’t lose both games either. After a second half meltdown against St. John’s, and another against Georgia, the results could have been much worse. Minnesota is a bubble team seemingly every year, and so far, this season looks no different. This year though, the script is flipped. It is the Gopher defense keeping them in games, while the offense sputters, and the gap between the declining offense improving defense appears to be widening. To see where things stand as the competitive part of the non-conference season winds down, we looked at Minnesota’s offensive and defensive efficiency, and the four factors that ultimately decide which team wins a basketball game. The graphs below reflect the season’s performance through the end of each game, with blue representing the offense and red the defense.
A team’s offensive and defensive efficiency measures how many points are scored or allowed per possession x 100, and adjusted for strength of schedule. So a high offensive efficiency is good, while a high defensive efficiency score is bad. Last season, the Gopher offense was their main strength. They didn’t put up points like Tubby Smith’s final team (which was horrible to watch, but managed to finish 16th in the country thanks to obscenely successful offensive rebounding), but was good enough to finish fifth in Big Ten play. More importantly, to some at least, the offense had flow, didn’t break down against a zone, and was aesthetically pleasing. There was a plan, other than throw the ball at the rim again and again until the ball fell through the hoop. This season, the ball isn’t going through the hoop at all. Minnesota’s offense now ranks 72nd in the country, and 11th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Penn State, Nebraska, and Rutgers, who is fresh off 26 points, and only 8 in the second half against Virginia.
The real shame is that Minnesota’s defense, at least so far, is much better than last season. The Gopher defense now ranks 29th in the country. If it finished the season ranked 29th, it would be their best performance since Tubby Smith’s second team, which coincidentally would have been much better if it was capable of scoring more than occasionally. Minnesota’s defense has performed above average in every game since Louisville, and while it did allow 1.03 points per possession against the Cardinals, it is the second best performance against Louisville this season.
Effective field goal percentage is just like field goal percentage, except three-pointers count as 1.5 made field goals since they are worth 1.5 made two point field goals. Making baskets is a good way to win a basketball game, and the Gophers haven’t been able to do that, inside or outside. They rank 187th in three-point shooting and 249th in two-point shooting. This could be a case of bad shooters missing because they can’t shoot, but there is more to it than that. Andre Hollins, despite his struggles, is shooting a bit better than last season. Deandre Mathieu is only a made basket or two from matching last season’s shooting. Joey King has struggled, but he is shooting the same shots as last season, and they will likely to start to fall. Nate Mason is actually shooting more accurately than either Austin Hollins or Malik Smith did last season The real culprit is Carlos Morris’ terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, or completely non-existent shot selection.
We throw the term “chucker” around pretty often to refer to players who think they are better shooters than they are, and five games into his career, Morris is an extreme example. He attempts shots more frequently than anyone on the team, on 26.1% of possessions, and has the lowest effective field goal percentage on the team (of guys who play, sorry Josh, Kendal, and Bakary), at only 35.8%. Wally Ellenson shot better in both his seasons with the Gophers, and so did Maverick Ahanmisi in every season of his career. The best shooters should take the most shots, and so far, the opposite is happening for the Gophers.
Louisville’s offense, at least the part of the offense that didn’t come at the free-throw line, made the Gophers look pretty silly. Montrezl Harrel and Terry Rosier combined to shoot 13-19 on two point attempts and 3-4 on thee-point attempts. When one great and one good player both play to the best of their ability, there isn’t much any defense can do, and it didn’t matter than the rest of the Cardinals combined to shoot only 4-15 on twos and 3-12 on threes, which was actually very good defense. For their part, the Gophers got over it, and haven’t allowed an opponent to shoot an effective field-goal percentage higher than 49%.
Shooting well, and keeping opponents from shooting well is all fine and dandy. However, making sure there is a shot attempt on offense, or keeping the defense from even attempting a shot, can be more important than what happens once the ball leaves a shooters hands.
Minnesota still gives the ball away too often, and somehow, is committing turnovers more often than last season, on 19.1% of possessions. The average team would commit turnovers on 20.2%. Louisville forces a lot of turnovers, so while it was unpleasant to watch, Minnesota’s inability to take care of the ball in Puerto Rico was hardly surprising. Unfortunately though, the Gophers are giving the ball away too often against other teams too.
New this season, is that they are forcing so many turnovers on defense, that the offense could afford even more giveaways, though this is certainly not suggested. The Gophers rank 10th in the country at forcing turnovers, coming away with the ball on 27.1% of possessions. It doesn’t seem to matter how well opponents usually handle the ball either. St. John’s ranks 54th in the country in ball security, even after the Gophers forced turnovers on 23.4% of possessions. Georgia ranks 65th in the country in turnovers, even after the Gophers forced turnovers on nearly 28% of possessions. A lot of Gopher fans wanted Shaka Smart because of his pressing and trapping defense. His havoc defense is only forcing turnovers on 23.6% of possessions. If this keeps up, RIchard Pitino might need to give his defense a stupid name too.
Tubby Smith’s best offensive team, his last, couldn’t shoot, but thanks to being the best offensive rebounding team in the last decade in all of college basketball, they had plenty of opportunities to finally score. Neither of Richard Pitino’s teams, and especially this season’s team, are getting those second chances. Some of that, again goes to shot selection. A jump shot in a one on three situation isn’t likely to go in, and can’t be rebounded if no offensive players are in position to get a rebound. Some of it is personnel too. Joey King and Maurice Walker aren’t going to out-jump anyone for a ball near the rim. At the very least, Minnesota’s offensive rebounding seems to be settling in the bad but not horrible territory.
Defensive rebounding seems to be on the way to becoming a bigger concern. Louisville has two of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and the Louisville game was the Gophers best defensive rebounding effort of the season. Defensive rebounding helped cost the Gophers a win against St. Johns, as the dreadful Red Storm got a second chances on 41% of their possessions. Normally, a team that shoots 15% on three-pointers, 60% on free-throws, and commits 18 turnovers will have a hard time scoring 50 points, but thanks to their offensive rebounding, and Minnesota’s bad defensive rebounding, they scored 70 points. Poor defensive rebounding could keep the Gopher defense good, instead of dominant.
The Gophers are experiencing a free-throw crisis, but it probably isn’t what you think. Yes, their free-throw accuracy is dreadful at only 55%. Yes, only five teams in the country are worse, and none of them will ever have any chance for an at-large NCAA tournament bid, And yes, your grandmother probably could shoot 100 free-throws and make 55 of them. Free-throw accuracy doesn’t matter though, at least not nearly as much as the opportunity to make a free-throw. Right now, the Gophers’ aren’t getting to the free-throw line nearly enough. and are attempting only 35 free-throws for every 100 field goal attempts. Nationally, the average team shoots 38 free-throws for every 100 field goal attempts. Bad field goal shooting teams can make up for their shooting woes by getting extra points when they are unguarded. So far, the Gophers aren’t getting those opportunities often, or converting them on the rare occasions that they do.
On the other end of the court, the Gophers continue to foul too often, and give up too many free-throw attempts. They rank 322nd in limiting opponent free-throw attempts. The Gophers play a very aggressive form of defense, so some of those fouls can be forgiven as collateral damage from steal attempts. Of the ten teams that force turnovers most often, only two rank in the top 100 in keeping opponents off the free-throw line, but only one allows more free-throws than the Gophers. Manhattan allows free-throw attempts more often than only six teams. However, they also have lost two close games, which likely inflated their foul problems. Some of the defensive foul trouble is also a hangover from the Louisville game, when the Cardinals attempted 42 free-throws and a relatively paltry 50 field goal attempts. Too much of it though, is just stupid. Too often the Gophers grab, reach, and hack when they are frustrated, or foul 80 feet from the basket without a realistic attempt to force a turnover, or foul on mostly open lay-ups. Some better decision-making and a bit of restraint in certain situations could keep opponents off the free-throw line, and make Minnesota’s defense even better.