One. Defense Defense Defense.
One of the biggest things that Minnesota is doing better right now is team defense. They have been defending on the perimeter well this year and they are much improved defending ball screens this season. Of course their low post defense is much improved with Reggie Lynch leading the Big Ten in blocking shots.
The struggles they were having was getting box-out hits and rotating defensively. During this win streak the defensive rotations have been much improved. Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy have each had a defensive rotation that led to a late game turnover that helped Minnesota win in the last two games. Both are improved in that way plus Eric Curry has made this type of play as well.
Two. Richard Pitino
Time for the head coach to get some credit for what is going on. He called three sets that led to wide open scores at the rim today and those three scores were vital. Also, Pitino is the person leading this defensive coaching and he’s definitely got through to some guys about how important these defensive rotations are. Not to mention the perimeter defense on ball screens, close-outs, etc has been much improved this year.
Credit Pitino for his talks with Mason and Murphy getting them out of their funks. He also handled the early season Akeem Springs situation well and Springs is now one of the teams most important players. This team has worked their way through a five game losing streak and have now closed out three games after previously giving up three leads.
Three. More Jordan Murphy.
Jordan Murphy has done two things most importantly: he’s playing with more energy and he’s playing with more confidence. Of course the rebounding is huge as is the finishing. His dunk today was simply incredible. When Jordan is going at the rim there is no hesitation any more, it’s just a hard effort off a reaction. No more pausing, thinking.
It’s not just rebounding and finishing at the rim though. Murphy is doing things he didn’t do before. The defensive rotations are there now. His game is much improved that way and he’s had a big defensive rotation for a stop late in each of the last two games. Jordan is also making stronger box-out hits. And offensively he’s looking more mature. His off the ball movements are timed perfectly to score with cuts and putbacks. Finally, his three-dribble attack where he waited, found the angle, then blew into the gap and finished was something that I thought made him look like a veteran.
Four. The Freshmen.
Both Amir Coffey and Eric Curry were crucial to this victory. Amir’s late game baseline attack score broke some of the Rutgers momentum and he also had an attack middle leading to a pass to Nate Mason for a corner three that led to Mason scoring back to back threes. Amir had a dozen points, six boards, and six assists plus his defensive rotation late to stop an attack and force a turnover may have been the biggest play of the game.
Curry came off the bench and did his best on the Rutgers mountain of a center CJ Gettys who led the Knights in scoring and boards. Curry gives up way too much size to stop Gettys but Gettys couldn’t stop Eric on the other end which led to Curry’s 11 points on 5 of 5 shooting plus two assists and six boards in 20 minutes of play.
Remember during the five game losing streak when the message was “patience, losing streaks happen”. Now Minnesota is back to .500 in the league and will likely be tied for 6th or 7th place by the end of the weekend. When you look at their schedule with four of the next five games at home they could be in 5th place soon IF they keep playing the way they are playing.
Who are those home games against? Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, and Nebraska. The Gophers have a very real chance at winning three of those games. Maybe four but let’s keep it within reason at the moment. Add in that they are 4-3 on the road in conference play (highest amount of road wins in a dozen years) and you have a team that Minnesota fans should be excited about the rest of the way. NCAA Tournament is within their grasp.