Erasure, or, how has Minnesota improved?

Hey, Josh here. The following is a new post from Joe, a new Geek. As you'll see, he's a welcome addition.

Those of you who are fans of KenPom may have noticed that the B1G has thus far ranked fourth amongst all conferences in the aggregate rating. This may be somewhat surprising, as the quality at the top has diminished. The 2016 incarnation of the B1G featured 3 of the 11 most efficient teams in the nation: #5 MSU, #9 Purdue, and #11 Indiana. Indeed 5 of the 25 most efficient teams in the NCAA were amongst the membership. This year has been a different story, as only one of the top 11 squads hails from the B1G. While, admittedly, I am employing selective endpointing here (3 of the top 15 teams are from the B1G), only four Big Ten schools are even in the top forty as opposed to 6 from the last campaign. So how has the B1G improved in the aggregate? The answer lies in the bottom of the conference.

The B1G featured a duo of terrible teams last year: Minnesota and Rutgers. These two teams ranked, respectively. #192 and #276 in efficiency margin. Rutgers was the worst B1G team of the KenPom era-47 spots behind the woeful ’04 Penn State. Just for a frame of reference as to how bad that is, #276 this year is Incarnate Word, a recent addition to D1 named after a religious concept. Minnesota was no slouch in the suck department either-most years, they would have been the worst team in the league. Apart from a truly inexplicable victory over Maryland, the Gophers managed to beat Rutgers only once and provided the Scarlet Knights with their only league triumph (by 23 points!).
This year, these two laggards have improved greatly. Rutgers is now merely a below-average B1G team, ranking 115th in efficiency, while Minnesota has skyrocketed to 47th (!), leapfrogging 5 of its conference rivals in the process. I will address Rutgers at another time, but Minnesota’s improvement deserves some examination on the eve opening day of conference play.

1. Erasing shots.
One cause of Minnesota’s improvement has been in the area of rim protection. Last year, Minnesota blocked a mere 171 shots (171st in the NCAA) for an even more anemic 10.2% block rate (259th). For a team which was already poor at field goal defense, this was an added insult to the defense. When you give up a scorching 38.1% from 3 and can’t do much at the rim, wins will be hard to come by. Even setting aside conference results, Minnesota was a mere 6-6 in the nonconference slate. This year, the Golden Gophers have gotten off to a 12-1 start. Much of this improvement can be attributed to the emergence of shotblocking as a key component of their defensive arsenal. To wit: last year’s leading shot blockers were Bakary Konate and Jordan Murphy, who blocked a total of 32 shots apiece at a 5.1 and 4.1 rate (the difference in rates is an artifact of Murphy playing more minutes). This year, the Gophers’ interior defense features the second most prolific shotblocker in the NCAA by rate in Illinois State transfer Reggie (no Hedgie) Lynch. Lynch has rejected 40 shots already in 13 games. Konate has increased his block rate as well, sending back 10.7% of opponent’s shots, albeit in more limited time. Murphy has contributed a almost block per game as well.

2. Erasing Joey King.
Now, this is not an attack on Joey King. He was a valiant soldier for a woebegone team (it is Minnesota, after all) and a useful piece with some additional help. When one of the bigger players you have on the floor shoots more than 60 percent of his shots from deep, your offense may suffer. And it did-Minnesota’s offense ranked just 230th in Division I. Part of this was necessity. Minnesota demonstrated a distinct lack of proficiency from three-ranking just 313th in Division 1. Without King’s attempts, they would have ranked just 347th at an abysmal 28.1%. As a result, however, Minnesota suffered on the offensive glass, corralling just 26.7% of rebounding opportunities on that end. Since King’s departure, the production in that area has improved-garnering Minnesota roughly an extra chance per game on the offensive end. However, the real story has been improvements behind the arc. Behold, a table:

Player

2015-16

2016-17

% +/-

Net effect (pts)

Mason

.302

.448

+.146

+25.4

McBrayer

.250

.421

+.171

+6.5

King/Springs

.404

.400

-.004

-.84

Murphy

.220

.100

-.120

-1.2

TEAM 3PT

.354

.310

+.044

+10.8

TEAM 2PT

.456

.487

+.031

+16.0

Now, 26 points doesn’t seem like a lot, but the Gophers have effectively been taking better shots-scoring more from 3 despite taking one fewer attempt per game, and becoming more efficient from 2.

3. Better 3-point defense.
The final leg of this stool is a dramatic improvement on 3-point defense. Much of the improvement from two is explained by better rim protection, but the three point defense has also been key. Improved rim protection has been a start-teams have been loath to enter the lane with Lynch/Konate lurking-but changes in the lineup have also been helpful. Last year’s Minnesota had a bit of a sluggish perimeter defensive presence. This year has been characterized by the more lithe and active Springs patrolling the closeouts as well as the quicker Murphy replacing King. The net result has been a 3-pt defense which has improved from 38.1% to 28.5%-a truly impressive performance. Despite this decline in percentage, opponents still have attempted nearly 2 more 3’s per game against the suddenly stalwart Gopher perimeter.