One. Back on Track.
Jordan Murphy hadn’t really put together the kind of game he wanted so far this season and Nate Mason hasn’t had the kind of shooting game he wanted in the early games and exhibitions. Both players had standout games on Wednesday as the Gophers prepare for their second big challenge of the year, a Friday game with St. John’s. Nate Mason made 6 of 11 attempts including a three and a couple trademark pull-ups while Murphy recorded 18 points and 12 boards.
Two. Elite Off-Ball Scorer
There are not many players in major conference basketball that can score as consistently as Minnesota sophomore Jordan Murphy does with off-ball movement. Jordan scored on 8 of 9 attempts (plus went to the foul line 7 times but he made just 2) and the first run of baskets came from basket cuts on a dead run to the rim catching from the other big to finish. Murphy also ran the floor for scores and moved hard to the offensive glass for baskets. Between Murphy’s second chance finishes, his fast break scores, and his basket cuts behind the defenses he scores off the ball as much as anybody. He’s also very hard to stop off the ball because he is often running by smaller guards who are expected to step in and cut him off but they really have the strength or the position to do so. Big game from Murphy.
Three. The Defense (The Good, The Bad, and The Great!)
I will always, always have something to say about this defense. The way the team halfcourt defends will tell the tale of the season. Tonight they defended well on ball making Mountaineer playmakers Elijah Long and Junior Robinson shoot a combined 11 for 27 and 2 for 9 at the arc. The Gopher length bothered this team all game long especially their best two players. Minnesota dominated the glass 46-25 and they pushed the ball for 14 points in transition (The Mount had zero transition scores). All the numbers looked good as the Gophers allowed their opponent to shoot only 35 percent for the game. My issue was that defensive rotations in the first half were too often slow and lazy, and helpside defense was very poor for a long stretch. Once the Mountaineers got past the initial defender they had open lanes to the rim resulting in kickouts or attempts. That changed in the second half, much like it did on Monday, so the Gophers are getting better. Reggie Lynch is a complete defensive game changer because when he’s on the floor he will get to his help nine times out of ten for a shot contest, block, or help position stop. Finally, Richard Pitino is really happy with the way the team is defending ball screens and he is right as the talk, the fight for positioning, the help and recovery, it’s all much improved. The on-ball defense and defense of screens is very good. Now they have to get better in rotation and helping over in my opinion. That said, it’s early and many of these guys are young.
Four. Quality Akeem
Akeem Springs is a needed player. His experience, ability to attack a rotating defense, and his touch at the arc are needed. Springs had a couple shots that made you cringe and both of them came right after a previous score. Sometimes that can be good, and other times the previous score can be fool’s gold. Tonight Springs put up 10 points on seven shots, made a pair of threes, and grabbed six boards in 16 minutes. Akeem’s two attacking scores attacking a rotating defense were nearly perfect as they came against defenders that were out of position and he used his burst to get to space. Akeem also boarded well and I thought his defensive chase in the first half stopped some potential Mountaineer attempts.
Five. Wing Play
Remember when Carlos Morris was allowed to make mistakes two years ago simply because there was nobody to back-him up but players that were either too small or too slow of foot? He eventually made so many that Charles Buggs moved to the small forward spot. Then last year the team went through another series of players on the wing but never found consistency. The small forward spot was a mess and wing production was low. That has changed as Amir Coffey gives the Gophers 30 versatile wing minutes every night. Tonight he gave Minnesota ten points, four boards, three assists, and several basket attacks as the Mountaineer defense just wasn’t ready for this 6-foot-8 player to come down hill at them. Add in the Springs ten off the bench and the continuing excellent play from Dupree McBrayer and wing play is a now a big strength of this team. Dupree made every shot he took for 13 points and three assists in 28 minutes.