JF

Just a few weeks ago, the Golden Gophers lost to St. John’s, after dominating the first three quarters of the game. The season looked over at that point. The Red Storm looked awful, and the Gophers looked worse. Flash forward to the present, and it is a whole new world. Ken Pomeroy’s computers are spitting out an 11-7 Big Ten record, which would be a tie for third in the Big Ten, and have the Gophers ranked 23rd in the country. The decidedly more human folks at CBS Sports have the Gophers ranked 24th. St. John’s, which looked awful, actually has one of the best defenses in the country, and is ranked 26th by KenPom, 13th by CBS Sports, 20th by the AP, and 23rd by the coaches. Georgia, which seemed just as bad as the Gophers, if not worse, has an RPI in the top 50, and in terms of RPI, Minnesota’s win over the Bulldogs is the Big Ten’s 8th best win this season. Combined with no horrible losses, which are mounting around the Big Ten, and the non-conference season is going well.  However, I’m not convinced that the people who declared the Gophers to be terrible after the St. John’s game are wrong. The Gophers are just getting better.

Andre Hollins is back.

Minnesota’s best player took a few weeks to re-find his form after an injury riddled junior season, but it now playing the best basketball of his career. He has an effective field goal percentage (three pointers count for 1.5 made shots) of 60.6, the best of his career by far, shooting 49% inside the three-point line and 47% from behind the three-point line. His ball handling is steadier, with no more than three turnovers in a game since the end of November. Most importantly,  he hasn’t had to play much, getting at least 13 minutes of rest in the last four games. He is primed for big Big Ten season.

Carlos Morris has been cured of chuckerism.

Maybe he was trying to do too much before. Maybe the coaching staff finally got through to him. Regardless of what happened, Morris is a different player. His effective field goal percentage is over 50%, and climbing. He’s shot better than 50% in every game in December. He is becoming something of a three-point sniper, shooting 41% from the outside, and has made 8 of his last 15 three-point attempts. Turnovers are still a bit of a problem, but his overall offensive efficiency is rapidly improving.

A player’s offensive rating is the points per possession they account for, times 100. Morris’ improvement couldn’t be more dramatic. His most recent bad game is better than his best game earlier this season. Did I mention than Morris ranks 34th in steals in the country? Richard Pitino has struck juco gold again.

Maurice Walker is unstoppable when he doesn’t commit a turnover.

Walker commits turnovers too often. More than a quarter of possessions that end with the ball in his hands result in a turnover, and that isn’t a good number at all. When he isn’t giving the ball away though, he is scoring. He’s shooting 66% from the floor and 72% from the free-throw line. He’s shooting 26-32 from the field this month. He is also getting plenty of rest, sitting for at least 17 minutes every game this month, and the rest is by choice. He hasn’t had more than 3 fouls in a game since he fouled out of the Georgia game. Walker was never supposed to be a defensive stopper, but he is now. Nationally, he ranks 120th in defensive rebounding, 31st in blocks,and 198th in steals. He’s gone from a defensive question mark who can’t stay on the floor to a steady scorer on offensive and rim protector on defense.

Deandre Mathieu might be the Big Ten’s best point guard.

Remember when the message board types were ready to bench Mathieu after tough games against Louisville at St. John’s. Now remember that Louisville and St. John’s have the second and fifth best defenses in the country. When Mathieu isn’t playing teams designed specifically to stop players like himself, Mathieu has been dominating. He is Minnesota’s most efficient offensive player, in part because he has solved his turnover problems. A whopping 37% of Gopher baskets come off a Mathieu assist while he is on the floor, and his turnover rate is only 16.3% and shrinking. For those who prefer the traditional assist to turnover ratio, Mathieu is stellar at 4 to 1.  So far this season, he has collected 27 steals, and committed 17 turnovers, giving the Gophers a positive turnover margin on his own.

Joey King isn’t awful anymore.

And he was awful, especially against Louisville and St. John’s. Since then he’s only been awful against Southern. The thing about King, is that the Gophers don’t need him to be particularly good. All he needs to do is grab a rebound or two, make a three-pointer, or two, and take a charge or two. King will never be glamorous, or particularly good, but he has a roll to play. This month he’s made 7 of 13 three-pointers, his rebounding is slowly approaching respectability, and he seems to do something thoroughly annoying to the other team every game. That isn’t spectacular, but no one is asking for spectacular.

Nate Mason will be a star.

Forget the second best assist to turnover ratio in the country among freshman. Ignore that he steals the ball more often than all but 28 players in the country. Disregard his steady scoring, which has been in double figures in all but four games this season. Let’s talk about rebounding. Nate Mason is generously listed at 6’1”. He is probably closer to 5’11”. He ranks 415th in the country in defensive rebounding and 18th in the Big Ten. Every Big Ten player who collects defensive rebounds more often is much taller. The shortest player ahead of Mason in the Big Ten list is 6’4” Rayvonte Rice. Mason is 5’11” or 6’1” or somewhere in between. The average height of better Big Ten defensive rebounders is 6’9”. Mason’s rebounding is absurd, and better than seven footer A.J. Hammons, near seven footer Nnanna Egwu, and NBA prospects Aaron White, Caris Lavert, Terren Pettway, and Sam Dekker, all of whom, by the way, are 6’6” or taller.

Elliott Eliason knows his role.

I have no problem admitting when I am wrong, and relish it when I expect the worst, and the best happens instead. I didn’t think Elliot Eliason should come off the bench. I thought he would struggle to get into the flow of the game, which would be extremely troubling because I also thought Mo Walker wouldn’t get be able to stay out of foul trouble if he started. Whoops! Couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Eliason isn’t playing much, only a little less than 16 minutes per game, but he is playing extremely well when he is in there. He is making 73% of his field goal attempts, and committing half as many turnovers as his previous career low. Yes, he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut, and he still thinks he hasn’t committed a single foul in his career, and his 30 second meltdown probably cost the Gophers a win against St. John’s, but none of us should be judged by our worst moment. Eliason has played 164 minutes so far this season, and for 163 minutes and 30 seconds, he’s played the best basketball of the season. Richard Pitino hasn’t asked Eliason to do much this season, but he’s excelling at all he’s been asked to do.

Bakary Konate is a work in progress, but there is progress.

This will be a slow process. Konate was recruited because of his potential. At 6’11” and 230 pounds, there is a lot of potential there. For the first several games he looked like a deer in head lights. Now, he only looks like a deer trying to play basketball. Except there are flashes when he looks like a basketball player, and one that could be really good in a few years. He made an unguardable jump hook against Seattle. He isn’t afraid to dunk when he has the chance. He’s huge, so he can get to the free-throw line, and has made 9 of his last 14 free-throws. He has a long way to, but he is getting there.

The Gophers haven’t played a tough non-conference season, and didn’t look particularly good against the only two really good teams they have played. However, the Gophers only need to beat the teams they play, and the rest of the Big Ten has been losing to the same types of teams that the Gophers have been dominating. The season didn’t end when the Gophers lost to St. John’s, and if they keep getting better, they have a lot more meaningful basketball left to play.