One. A top 25 Team.
Minnesota has earned themselves a top 25 ranking and a 15-2 record because they are deeper than past teams, more talented, and play much better together as a unit. Those that follow this team and know team basketball could see part of this coming as this team has been put together the last couple years.
Doubters? Oh yes. Last season I felt like I was like facing a lynch mob after every game on the GI message boards telling people it’s a process that will work out. The casual fans that don’t watch the team consistently, and the negative but boisterous fans, they had a lot to say. So much to say in fact that one of biggest motivations that this Minnesota Gopher team had was to prove to their own fans and their metro area that they are a good team. Now they have done that.
With balance, experience, improved team defense, shot blockers, depth, interior weapons, and an all around team concept the Minnesota Gophers are now 15-2 and Williams Arena is an exciting place to be. March Madness? It looks like Minnesota fans have something to look forward to if….
Two. Can they maintain?
Fact is we’ve been here before at Minnesota. Not under Richard Pitino but under Tubby Smith. The Gophers went 12-1 in non-conference and it was a big deal, but Tubby Smith did that three times in six years. The Gophers are 3-1 in the Big Ten and tied for first place in the Big Ten Conference (with Michigan State, Purdue, and Nebraska). But Tubby also had three teams that went 3-1 to start Big Ten play and once of those was 3-0.
No Tubby Smith team finished above .500 in league play. The best he had was 9-9 and one of those teams that went 12-1 and 3-1, they finished 6-12. What will make this team different than the Tubby teams? First off this Richard Pitino coached team plays a much different style of basketball offensively and defensively the Tubby teams didn’t have interior defenders that played like Lynch (well, Colton Iverson did at times but Tubby didn’t use him much). If this Pitino team stays healthy (Tubby dealt with injuries and of course transfers) they should definitely hit the .500 mark in league play. They have 14 more games to win six and that is quite doable based on the way this team is playing.
Three. Akeem steps in for Dupree
Akeem Springs is Minnesota’s best perimeter defender. Springs may also be their most explosive shooter at the moment. Tonight Akeem hit five three pointers in 27 minutes of play including a clutch NBA trey late in the game when Minnesota needed a shot clock buy-out. Springs not only scored 18 points but he was the best passer on the floor today.
Late in the game it was Springs on the floor at shooting guard instead of Dupree as McBrayer had another tough game on both ends. In 26 minutes McBrayer shot 3 of 10 for his nine points. Two of those attempts were feet set makes as Dupree is a strong shooter with space and feet set. However, the sophomore forced his offense way too many times into multiple defenders early in the shot clock and that led to bad shots or turnovers. He’s also struggling defensively. This is why Pitino went with Springs late in the game until he wanted four guards on the floor.
Many Gopher fans are wondering if Springs should start for McBrayer. My feeling? Don’t mess with success. The chemistry and rotation that Minnesota is using is 15-2. There is no need to mess with it. Akeem will get minutes like he did tonight if he is playing like he is. If McBrayer continues to struggle and the Gophs drop some games, then maybe something may need to happen. But McBrayer is the team’s second leading scorer for a reason and I believe he’s just in a small slump. Like Reggie Lynch was before these three Big Ten wins.
Something to know, Kam Williams is Ohio State’s best three point shooter and he plays the two guard with CJ Jackson. Those two shot a combined 3 of 18 from the floor and the hands in their face were often Springs and McBrayer.
Four. Shot Blocking.
One of the first things that Thad Matta said after the game was that Minnesota was so good contesting shots around the basket that his team couldn’t get enough clean looks near the rim. Reggie Lynch had three in 25 minutes while Bakary Koante was the shot blocking leader this evening swatting four in only 15 minutes of time. Jordan Murphy has also been blocking shots, he and Eric Curry each had a pair and Michael Hurt had one block.
Twelve blocks is what the Gophers finished with and that played a role in the Buckeyes in shooting 40.6 percent from the field. Jae’Sean Tate shot 10 of 15 for his 20 points and if Minnesota wasn’t such a good shot blocking team he would have been 13 of 15. Marc Loving, CJ Jackson, and Kam Williams all had problems with the Gopher length.
Five. Amir Coffey.
Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer shot a combined 5 of 22 but it was no big deal. Why? Minnesota got their perimeter scoring from Springs and freshman Amir Coffey. Everybody will remember the cut from Amir down the middle that led to a two hand slam in the paint over a pair of Buckeyes but also remember his attacking scorers off of a skip and a kickout that were also key second half baskets. Amir was 7 for 11 from the field and most of that was scores on the move. With his length, agility, and ability to finish nobody could get in front of Coffey before it was too late. Coffey had another excellent game passing the ball (five assists) by simply making the right pass to open teammates plus he had the 19 on the move. Ohio State simply had no answer for him plus he forced Marc Loving into a 3 of 10 shooting night. Yes Amir far outplayed a Buckeye senior.
Extra. Shot Selection/Team Defense.
There were four first half decisions from Dupree McBrayer attacking or shooting early in the shot clock that were low percentage. One of those decisions went for a basket, the other three were turnovers and misses. Nate Mason had a couple bad shots as we usually see each game. And the start of the second half included several bad shots by several different guys as they didn’t seem to understand the momentum of the game.
This is an open floor attacking basketball team that plays with pace. The way they play there will be bad shots. I just felt that tonight there were a bit too many bad stretches but they still get the victory. That said, McBrayer and Mason shot a combined 5 of 22 and this is two straight games their combined shooting numbers were very low.
The team defense of Minnesota looked very good early, they played better at the end, but when Ohio State made their runs some of the Gophers looked mentally tired. There were players not getting to their rotations, not blocking out, and the communication became very poor. Things corrected themselves towards the end but if this team wants to make a run in March there are five things that come to mind that happened too often in the second half: 1) dumb fouls, 2) Dupree needs to get over/through screens, 3) Mason and Murphy have to communicate on screens better, 4) Murphy is greatly improved as a defender but he looks tired on defense often in his second rotation on the floor in the second half, and 5) Reggie Lynch missed a lot of box-out hits.
Big Ten basketball is very good. You are going to have these defensive issues at times especially when you are playing two freshman and two sophomores playing this much, but those five listed things above need to happen a bit less.