For the second straight season, Tubby Smith scheduled conservatively out of the gate. As a result, Minnesota sprinted out of the gate. On January 15, they stood at 16-1. And even though there were plenty of cupcakes left in the Gophers' wake, the team also sported a neutral site win over Louisville and a road victory at the Kohl Center. The rest of the season would not go so smoothly, as Tubby's team sputtered to a 6-10 finish, which included a first round dismissal in the dance at the hands of Texas.
Since arriving in Minneapolis, Tubby has left an immediate mark on the defensive end of the floor. The Gophers have adopted his frenetic pressing style with ease, trailing only Northwestern when it comes to forcing turnovers in conference games. Even more impressive, he has managed to integrate this style within a roster holding lots of shotblocking talent. In fact, Minnesota led the nation in Block Percentage last year, led by terrific individual performances by Damian Johnson, Ralph Sampson, and Colton Iverson. Combine that with an ability to force turnovers on 23% of your opponents possessions, and you have the makings of a powerhouse.
That isn't to say that the Gophers were not without faults. For all that blocking and thievery, Minnesota ranked "just" 4th in conference Defensive Efficiency. The culprits? Well, really, there were three. First, this was a bad defensive rebounding team (9th in conference in DReb%). The troubling this is that this might be difficult to correct without altering the shotblocking. After all, can it really be a coincidence that each of Johnson, Sampson, and Iverson were poor rebounders for their size (ok, maybe that's a little unfair to Sampson)? Two of those guys were freshmen, so there's a reasonable hope here that they can improve on the boards without losing too much swatting ability.
The second problem was that opponents shot a lot of (38.7% of FGA) and made a lot of (37%) three point shots. The conclusion? Minnesota's perimeter defense was soft last season. At first, this sounds counterintuitive. After all, isn't a successful pressing team going to have lots of pesky & quick guards playing in-your-face defense? Well, that's not entirely true in Minnesota's case. While they do press quite a bit, that means that other players on the far end of the floor are in a "zone prevent" defense designed to simply stop easy scores (layups). Moreover, once the press is broken, the Gophers tend to sag quite a bit off their men. This might be the biggest issue. Why worry about the dribble drive when you have the nation's premier shotblocking frontcourt on the help side? If we don't see improvement here, I'll be surprised.
And finally, the Gophers endured some bad luck - Big Ten opponents shot 74% from the line against them, good for dead last.
All in all, this was a good defense that can get better. But the real concerns were on offense.
After the January 11 game against Penn State, Minnesota's offense fell off a cliff. Indeed, as the competition got tougher, Minnesota's struggles came to light. Consider, they were
- Last in the conference in eFG
- Tenth in turnover percentage
- Ninth in 2-point field goal percentage
- Last in three point percentage
The real saving grace for this team was that they captured a lot of offensive rebounds. But even so, this was the second-worst offensive team in the Big Ten, behind only the hapless Indiana. That's the bad news. The good news is that all of that will very likely change this season. I'll discuss how tomorrow.