The competitive portion of the non-conference Golden Gopher basketball season is over. The Gophers have four weeks and six games to prepare themselves for the Big Ten season. Thanks to wins over Georgia and Wake Forest, the Gophers should still have a reasonable chance to make the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 or 10-8 conference record, if they can improve enough to do so.
The next six games aren’t about the Gophers opponents at all. If any of the opponents are competitive, and if a game is ever in doubt, something has been horrible. Western Carolina, Friday’s opponent, is the best of a group of bad teams, and they already have losses to Charleston Southern and East Tennessee State, this season. The next six games are all about the Gophers solidifying their strengths, fixing or at least hiding their weaknesses, and solidifying line-ups.
Since the wins are all but guaranteed, here are some things worth watching besides the score:
1. Will free-throw rate ruin the Gophers?
The Gophers should be bigger, faster, and stronger than all of their remaining non-conference opponents, which means they should be able to get to the free-throw line, and avoid sending their opponents to the free-throw line. Minnesota’s offense is very jump-shot oriented right now. They’ll need to learn how to get to the free-throw line to manufacture points on night’s when jumps shots aren’t falling. On defense, particularly without much depth, the Gophers need to find a balance between aggressive defending and avoiding foul trouble. Forcing turnovers is great, but guys on the line because of fouls isn’t. Richard Pitino’s goal is for the Gophers to make as many free-throws at their opponents attempt. This season, the opposite is happening too often.
2. Can turnovers lead to a defensive turnaround?
Minnesota’s defense was bad last year, and is better this year. The big difference is the Gophers’ ability to force turnovers. Only eight teams have forced more, and so far Gophers have been able to take away the ball from anyone. If they can keep that up for the rest of non-conference season, they might be able to force a lot of turnovers once Big Ten play begins. If the turnovers dry-up, they’ll need to find a way stop other teams. If Gophers can’t get teams like Furman and Southern to give the ball away, they won’t be able to take the ball from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, who all rank in the top 10 in the country in ball security.
3, What about Buggs?
The Gophers seem to have two solid options off the bench in Nate Mason and Elliott Eliason. However, neither player is particularly versatile. Eliason is a center, Mason is a combo guard, and neither can do much else. That leaves two or three positions to fill, and Buggs is the only one reasonably ready to fill them. Buggs remains a wild-card on both ends of the floor, capable of being completely lost and forcing turnovers on defense, and being a boost or a burden on offense. Expect to see a lot Buggs, in a lot of different roles, over the next few weeks.
4. Can Carlos Morris stop chucking?
Despite a three-pointer that somehow went backwards, Carlos Morris showed some discretion against Wake Forest, and he finally shot better than 50% from the floor against a Division I team. His relative efficient 15 points played a major role in helping the Gophers win on the road. Unfortunately, less shooting meant more dribbling, which meant a lot of turnovers. He has the tools to be a very good player, but he still hast to learn how to to use them.
5. The ‘dres.
The Gophers will go only as far as Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu can carry them. They started the season slowly, but were both great against Wake Forest. We don’t know yet whether they are over what was ailing them before that, or if they are capable of consistently playing well, even against inferior competition. It might have been rust, it might have been two players learning how to work together. Whatever it was, it is hopefully gone. When they are at their best, they are one of the best back courts in the country, and they’ll need to be one of the best back courts to overcome their teams’s lack of depth and other scoring options.