“Every so often you run into a buzzsaw, not getting chopped down is a good thing.” That buzzsaw was Furman, and while the Golden Gophers nearly lost a limb or two, they won a close game that either foreshadows another poor defensive performance, or prepares the Gophers to overcome the adversity they will face later this season. UNC Wilmington, while not a particularly good team, is more than capable of making Saturday afternoon more interesting than it should be.
Before we jump ahead to Saturday’s game, there were several requests to take a closer look at the second half of the Furman game, when they seemingly could not miss, whether they were making open lay-ups or three-pointers, or were knocking down 35 footers as the shot clock expired, double teamed 23 footers as the shot clock expired, karate chop shots from 15 feet, or 10 foot shoulder deflections. Their second half shooting performance wasn’t statistically impossible, but I know that only because it actually happened.
Furman’s hot shooting actually began at the end of the first half, when they made their final three three-pointers. In the second half they made 7-12 three-pointers, including a 5-6 stretch that started around the 8 minute mark and that didn’t end until there was a minute left, and the Gophers finally pulled away. There was a reason why it felt like the Paladins couldn’t miss. They had effective field goal percentage of 75.9 on the way to 1.17 points per possession. There were plenty of panicked faces in The Barn. Richard Pitino’s jacket was off. It was beginning to look bleak. The thing is though, Minnesota’s offense was even better than Furman’s in that half. While the Gopher’s shooting didn’t seem impossible, they did make 5-10 three-pointers, and had an effective field goal percentage of 62.5, on the way to 1.26 points per possession. Minnesota’s defense was struggling, but they outgunned a team that could hardly miss.
There is a decent chance that the Gophers will need to outgun UNCW too. The Seahawks haven’t managed to beat anyone of consequence, but did manage to play Louisville to an 11 point game on the road. They can knock down outside shots, ranking 70th nationally in three-point accuracy. They commit far too many turnovers (only 31 teams commit more), and don’t shoot well inside the three-point line, but three-pointers are the great equalizer in college basketball, and the Gophers can’t afford to be late closing out on shooters, or letting the defense get out of shape against penetration.
Guarding shooters is only the first half of defense. Getting a rebound after a missed shot is just as important, but the Seahawks haven’t been able to figure this out. They are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, which is really a shame. Poor defensive rebounding cost them a huge upset win over Louisville and a win over Old Dominion. The Gophers are not good defensive rebounding team either, but UNCW’s best defensive rebounding game of the season is worse than Minnesota’s average performance on the defensive boards. Otherwise, their defense is decent. They block a lot of shots, defend the paint well, force a fair number of turnovers, and don’t allow many three-point attempts. Overall, their defense ranks 168th in the country, which happens to be better than Indiana’s and not much worse than Purdue’s.
If there is going to be an upset in The Barn on Saturday, it is going to be Dylan Sherwood’s fault. He is a 6’9” power forward, ranks 171st in offensive efficiency, and is something of a super-accurate Joey King. He shoots 52% from behind the three-point line and 57% inside. If he isn’t closely guarded, he will score a lot of points. Cedrick Williams, who actually starts instead of Sherwood, is much more of a traditional power forward, blocking a lot of shots, getting hacked, and grabbing offensive rebounds. Williams softens up the defense for Sherwood’s shooting.
In something of an anomaly for a smaller school, it is UNCW’s back court that holds them back. Craig Ponder’s shooting accuracy is reminiscent of Christian’s passing accuracy, shooting under 40% inside the three-point line with an assist to turnover ratio of .9. Addison Sprull is a very good rebounder at 6’4”, but barely shoots 50% at the free-throw line and 29% behind the three-point line. Freddie Jackson, does an amazing job staying on the floor, ranking 12th in the country in playing time, and he rarely fouls, but he isn’t very noticeable while he is on the court.
Hopefully the Gophers are done with buzzsaws and nearly impossible shooting performances. It is easy to write off one weird game as an aberration, as long as it doesn’t happen again and again. A strong performance against the Seahawks would allow the Gophers to move past the Furman game, while hopefully also remembering the lessons they learned from it.