I figure it’s about time to really get this thing going. My last entry, I discussed Ohio State who has really had a drop-off in performance since that post. Losing David Lighty to injury has really hurt them, and anyone expecting Dallas Lauderdale to maintain that off-the-charts level of defense is misguided. The Buckeyes’ most recent loss came at the hands of Tubby Smith’s Minnesota Gophers who will be the topic of today’s post.
Minnesota is 13-1 right now with wins over Louisville and Ohio State, and the lone loss coming to Michigan State. In only Tubby Smith’s second year, the Gophers look to be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid after reaching the NIT last year. Minnesota is indeed playing slightly better this year, but their record may be the result of a light schedule thus far.
The main area in which the Gophers are better this year is on offense. Last year they averaged 1.04 point per possession on offense, whereas this year they are slightly over 1.10 points per possession. It’s not a huge improvement, but it is noticeable and it does affect their chance of winning.
I attribute most of the offensive improvement to two things. First, this year’s Minnesota team is much better shooting the basketball from all areas of the court. They have improved slightly from the free throw line and 3-point line, but inside is where the biggest difference is being made. Last year, it was Dan Coleman, Spencer Tollackson, and Damian Johnson roaming the middle and using up possessions inside. Coleman shot 49.2%, Johnson shot 54.7%, and Tollackson shot 52.2% on 2-point attempts last year. This year, Coleman and Tollackson have been replaced by a couple of freshmen in Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III. With Iverson shooting 60.9%, Sampson shooting 52.0% and Johnson improving to 65.2 %, the combination of those three has been a much more effective scoring weapon inside.
The second factor contributing to the improved offense is the development of Al Nolen. He has made a huge leap as a decision maker in just his sophomore. He has severely cut down on the turnovers and is the leading the Big Ten in assist rate at 0.36 assists per field goal made by a teammate. Not only that, but he can get to the rim and to the foul line when he takes on a scoring role, as he leads the team in free throw attempts.
The go-to guy on offense is clearly Lawrence Westbrook, as he attempts close to 30% of the team’s shots while he is on the floor. His scoring rate has also been an improvement so far this season, as he is finishing better inside and has been a very good foul shooter this season. Blake Hoffarber is the other main piece of the puzzle, whose main role on offense has been to knock down treys which he has done so at a 43.3% clip so far.
Defensively, the Gophers still leave a bit to be desired. They were quite good at forcing turnovers last year, and that has continued on to this year. So far they are forcing a turnover on 23.9% of every opponent’s possession. They have also been better this year defending in the paint. Right now they are first in the country in block percentage, at a rate of 20.3% blocks for every 2-point shot attempted. The combination of Colton Iverson, Ralph Sampson III, and Damian Johnson are the main reason behind that, especially with Iverson at 6’10” and Sampson at 6’11”. When not blocking shots, that length has still made it difficult for opponents to score inside, as the Gophers are holding opponents to a 42.8% on 2-point attempts.
The main area of concern on defense is clearly the defensive glass. Minnesota is allowing opponents to rebound 37.1% of their own misses which is not good by any means. In fact, that ranks 294th in the country. They have gotten away with it in most of their games, but it really hurt them in their loss to Michigan State. The Spartans are known for crashing the offensive glass, and they grabbed 53.3% of their own misses against Minnesota last week. The good news however is that almost all the other coaches in the Big Ten don’t send their teams to the offensive glass nearly as hard because they’d rather have their defense back in transition to stop breakaway points.
In summary, I feel Minnesota is a slightly better team this year offensively with better length that allows them to score and defend better inside. Al Nolen also has the offense running much smoother. The defense isn’t anything to write home about, but all in all the easy schedule so far makes it tough to predict how the Gophers will fare in the Big Ten so far. My opinion is that they will be in the middle of the pack with their postseason hopes firmly on the bubble.