Minnesota Season Preview

I’m sure there are many interesting things one could write about the University of Minnesota basketball team. But to me, by far the most interesting thing is senior Deandre Mathieu. Simply put, he makes no sense.

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Mathieu was a junior college transfer, which basically means no one knew what to expect. Last season, he functioned as a primary ballhandler in what ended up being a pretty capable Minnesota backcourt. But despite standing just 5-9, Mathieu had the game of someone standing almost a foot taller. Consider that last season, 86 percent of Mathieu’s field goal attempts were 2s. That’s a highly unusual shot distribution for someone his size. Even odder, Mathieu made his 2s, to the tune of 51.3 percent.

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OK, so that’s strange, but it’s still possible that Mathieu is attempting a whole lot of 18-foot jumpers, right? Well, that wasn’t the case, either. Per hoop-math.com, 56 percent of Mathieu’s 2s came at the rim. Alright, what about the possibility that Mathieu was just very good at shooting jumpers, which overcame his presumably lackluster finishing ability?

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Well, that theory doesn’t hold any water, either, as Mathieu made just 36.7 percent of his midrange shots. That’s really not much better than average.

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No, this was simply a case of a 5-9 Big Ten player attacking the rim and making 64 percent of his attempts there. No big whoop. Sure, some of that can be explained by his quickness:

Ankles, bro

But stuff like this?

StandUpBeardGuy

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No, I’m calling shenanigans. Time for a proclamation:

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Deandre Mathieu will shoot under 48 percent from 2 this season.

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Given that he was at 51 percent last season, this isn’t the boldest proclamation, but it’s a safe one. Frankly, I think the more likely range is somewhere around 46 percent, if he’s shooting 2s at the same rate this season.

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Of course, one might be tempted to look at Mathieu’s outside shooting ability as a potential way to get some of those points back. After all, he did shoot 50 percent on 3s last year, surely he can maintain solid accuracy as he increases his three-point attempt percentage above last year’s 14 percent, right?

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Well, with apologies to From the Barn, I’m not convinced Mathieu can shoot. Yes, he made half his 3s last year, and yes, his free throw percentage was a respectable 74 percent. But it’s well past time we started treating 3PA% not as a mere indicator of a player’s preferences, but rather as a data point in a player’s shooting accuracy. The fact that Mathieu only took 14 percent of his field goal attempts from 3 tells us that either he or Richard Pitino (or both) wanted him to focus on the very wide open or very necessary three-pointers. Did he make a lot of those? Sure. But that doesn’t change the information that’s conveyed through that low attempt percentage.

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If you’re looking for precedents on this, you don’t have to look far. In 2010, former Gopher Paul Carter converted 41 percent of his 3s, which he attempted on 19 percent of his field goal attempts. After transferring to UIC, he made just 30 percent of his outside attempts. And he doesn’t stand alone:

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Player

Prior Season 3P%

Prior Season 3PA%

Next Season 3P%

Roy Devyn Marble

39.3

17.6

32.7

Lewis Jackson

30.0

15.8

21.4

Shavon Shields

35.9

20.6

31.6

Tim Frazier

37.5

18.2

34.4

Tim Frazier

34.4

19.4

31.4

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(Note the two-season slide for Tim Frazier). This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I should mention there’s a reason I’m focusing a lot on guards—a big man that dabbles in outside shooting early in his career, and turns it into a bona fide weapon (Adreian Payne being an example) should be treated differently. For these guys, getting a three-point attempt is part confidence, but also part schematic. For all of his talents, Adreian Payne was not someone you wanted dribbling off a pick and roll. He’s also not someone you want standing in the corner waiting for his chance to shoot. In that sense, getting a big man an open three-point look requires much more effort from the offense as a whole. I also suspect that the requisite confidence for a head coach to allow his big men to shoot 3s is more than for guards, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

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This isn’t to say there haven’t been counterexamples (D.J. Newbill comes to mind, though he also had a stretch that went the other way if you count his season at Southern Miss), but the takeaway here is that it’s highly unlikely that Mathieu is secretly a sharpshooter who, for reasons illogical and unknown, preferred to make 50 percent of his 2s rather than 50 percent of his 3s. If he hits a 35 percent mark on his threes while devoting 25 percent or more of his FGAs to long range, I’ll be surprised (it’s also worth noting that he made just 29 percent of his 3s—again as a very selective outside shooter—at his junior college).

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Now that I’ve devoted some 800-plus words to taking down Deandre Mathieu (what did he ever do to me?), I suppose I should say something about the rest of the Gophers. The team returns about 75 percent of last year’s conference minutes, with Austin Hollins being the biggest loss. Andre Hollins again figures to be an underappreciated all-conference performer, but I worry whether the team has enough outside shooting—after Hollins, Joey King (who leaves much to be desired on the defensive end) is the only other real outside threat (assuming what I do about Mathieu).

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Coming in is a very diverse class, drawing from Kansas, Spain (though he’s not with the team yet because of an academic issue), and even that crazy country Florida. I don’t know very much about the class outside Nate Mason, who I actually like a lot. He played on the same AAU team as 5-star forward Theo Pinson, and Mason arguably put up better numbers (of course, Pinson is 6-6 and Mason is 6-1—which counts for a lot, and I’ve seen Mason listed as 5-11 in some places). Mason is listed as a shooting guard, but his high assist numbers indicate he could play some point guard as well.

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Overall though, as big as the class is, I’m not sure I see substantial reloading for this season. And with few sophomores on the roster, it’s hard to see a lot of improvement coming internally (the one exception I’ll make is for Mo Walker, who is half all-league player, half-freshman big man. He just needs to stop fouling and turning the ball over...so he’s basically a toned-down A.J. Hammons on all fronts).

Overall, I think Minnesota runs in place this season, with another NIT run a distinct possibility.