Fun game to watch, but not a fun outcome. That was an incredibly winnable game, and they just couldn't get it. A home loss to Michigan isn't a season killer by any stretch, but no being able to win a home game against a team on a similar tier (I thought) whose best player is out with an injury and also loses their second best player in the second half is not a good sign for the rest of the year. An NCAA bid just got that much more unlikely.
In a blatantly stolen format from the great Zach Lowe at Grantland, here are 10 things I liked and didn't like from last night. And yes I'm planning on using this format to recap every game unless I get bored or forget.
1. Fundamental Defense. The Gophers elected to mainly eschew the zone in favor of man-to-man against Michigan, which is something I said would probably be necessary for a win right here on this very blog, so I liked that. They also elected to get way out in passing lanes in order to try to force more turnovers, and it worked for a stretch, but it also over extended the defense and since Michigan and Beilein traditionally use a lot of Princeton offense principles when they have the ball, there were a lot of back cuts. More to the point, there were a lot of back cuts that led to open shots. If you're going to deny all passes you have to be near perfect in not losing your man or have help defense always in position. Neither happened against Michigan.
2. Offensive Creativity. One of the reasons the game was so fun to watch, beyond the Gophers pushing the ball at every opportunity, was Pitino doing a lot of cool things in the half court. One play I really liked was where they set two consecutive picks off the ball for Austin Hollins to do a curl cut out at the wing heading towards the free throw line. If he has shot or a driving lane, go with it obviously, but after Hollins comes through the second picker screens down on the first picker who pops out for an open three. The other really slick play was the one to get Malik Smith the open three near the end of the game (for some reason the btn2go replay feed ends at the 4 minute mark so I'm describing this one by memory). Mathieu sprints down court with the ball and heads to the right wing in what looks like your typical dribble hand off play, but instead of handing it off he keeps the ball and drives baseline, throwing the defense off. At the same time, Malik Smith heads towards the opposite corner (I don't know if there was a pick for him or not, but I suspect there was a back pick involved) for an open three. Cool play. So much interesting stuff going on at that end, I'm going to have to start recording the games and watching them a second time just to catch it all. Maybe.
3. Ball Screen Defense. I did not understand the defensive scheme last night. I've already said that I believed last night man-to-man was the way to go, but they way the Gophers defended ball screens really had me baffled. They chased the ball handler over the top of every screen, which is what you would do if you feared a three point shot coming right off the pick, but the big men never hedged out which created driving lanes for the dribbler (this is what Michigan did all night, bracket the ball handler with both the man guarding him and the man guarding the screener are night and it worked well to contain the Hollinseses). This penetration caused the need for help defense in the lane which led to a lot of easy dishes for easy buckets. I know Michigan is a good 3-point shooting team, but according to the awesome hoop-math.com 85% of three pointers in college are assisted, and Michigan is right at that same number so they don't exactly have a lot of guys who are going to come around the pick and shoot right away. This just confused me the entire game.
4. Elliott Eliason may be an actual center now. It's been going on all season, really, as Eliason has stepped in after the loss of Trevor Mbakwe and has more than doubled his scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots, but it was welcome to see him notch a double double against a Big Ten team. A Big Team relatively devoid of effective big men, but a Big Ten team nonetheless. It was less pleasant to realize Eliason may be the most important player on the team, because Mo Walker is basically useless outside of a wide open lay-up, and Oto and Joey King are both too small. This realization is pretty terrifying, considering as of now there's only one new big coming in for next season as well.
5. No Draustin Hollins means no wins. When the two best players on the team shoot 4-19 and 1-11 from three it's going to be awfully, awfully tough to win. Some might say that coming that close to beating a decent Michigan team with the performance those two put up is actually a good sign for this team. Those people are idiots. The Gophers probably need both of them to play well in order to win most games, and I don't even know if they'd beat Northwestern if both played poorly (just kidding, they would). This was rough. I'm just glad we're already passed the holidays. I can't imagine having to sit there at the dinner table listening to Lionel berate both his sons for this poor play against Michigan. Ouch.
6. Honey Gopher is a site to behold. Dre Mathieu is really fun to watch. So incredibly fast, and incredibly creative once he gets in the paint, which he needs to be since he's only 5-9. Incredible hops as well, as he challenged Glen Robinson at the rim twice going for a highlight reel play - unfortunately Robinson ended up 2-0 in those match ups. That being said, when you're 5-9 and your best move is driving to the rim there are going to be some problems, and he kind of fell apart at the end including a couple of crushing turnovers with under 90 seconds left to play. I still love him. I like my point guards to be a little bit reckless, and he's just a little bit reckless.
7. The Defense on Nik Stauskas was stellar. Stauskas is a very good player and his changes from last year are legit, so holding him to 3-7 shooting and 1-4 on threes is quite good. Even more impressive is Stauskas only took 7 shots, only the fourth time he's had less than double digit shot attempts and two were in the first two games of the year before he realized he was good now and the other time was against Duke and I think he was hurt or something. Anyway, the Hollins brothers alternated on him and a solid combination of ball denial and tough man-to-man worked well for most of the game. He did manage to score 14 points, but seven of those came on free throws, and he also notched a season high seven assists because once he realized the Gophers were chasing on screens he just kept going into the lane and passing to somebody since help defense had to collapse to stop penetration kill me.
8. Somehow Jon Horford was a force. I said in my preview that you didn't really have to worry about Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford being an offensive presence, though Horford did at least have a bit of a jump shot. Pitino and the Gophers must be DWG readers, because they constantly left Horford alone in their defensive rotations and unfortunately he made them pay as he hit a number of nice 10-12 jumpers. Those jumpers along with being a frequent recipient of those easy dishes in the lane led to a 6-8 shooting night and 14 total points, a career high. Whatever. Your brother is still way better than you.
9. Replay kind of screwed the Gophers, but not in the way you might think. Or maybe in the way you think, I don't know your brain. When the Gophers appeared to create a Michigan turnover (and there were only 10 by Michigan for the game, by the way, compared to 15 for the Gophers which is not how they're going to win) down 3 with like 20 seconds left Pitino immediately called his final timeout to set up a play. After review, the refs correctly gave the ball back to Michigan. If that call is made correctly the first time Pitino never uses that timeout because you don't need a timeout to say "press and then foul." So the Gophers were left without a timeout at the end of the game. Didn't really matter I guess, but that could affect a game at some point in a meaningful way.
10. Has Corporate America taken over the student section? You know those big giant heads the students hold up to distract a free throw shooter? Kind of stupid but also pretty fun and always interesting to see who brings what, right? Well last night there were only about 5 or 6 of them (usually there's like 10-20) and they were all the stupid Target dog. The only explanation I can come up with is Target now sponsors that section and all other big head things are banned. Horrible. Simply horrible. Worse than Oto Osenieks who I like but stayed in the game way to long down the stretch with Malik Smith on the bench.
Whatever. We move on. Next up is Purdue on Saturday, and this is an absolute must win if this season is going to have any chance at resembling a successful one. Because Purdue is terrible. They're 10-4, and although they only have one bad loss (Washington State) they've struggled against some pretty terrible teams. They won by 1 versus Northern Kentucky, 4 vs. Rider, 5 vs. Siena, and 5 versus Eastern Michigan. They do have one good win over West Virginia, but nothing else impressive.
The Gophers should feel comfortable going back to their zone on Sunday, since Purdue doesn't shoot many threes and aren't particularly good at it when they do. What they do like to do is run, and while Painter's teams have never been slow paced this is his fastest team by a considerable margin. That they've upped their pace while still limiting turnovers quite a bit is impressive. Purdue plays three guards in Terone Johnson, Ronnie Johnson, and Bryson Scott who can all score (their three leading scorers) and who all value the basketball.
The X-factor will be 7-foot monster A.J. Hammons, who averages just 9 points and 8 rebounds on the season but just exploded for 18 & 16 versus Ohio State. The Gophers literally only have one guy who can effectively guard him and Hammons is very good at drawing fouls, which means Eliason is going to have to balance aggressiveness and smartness more than ever - Hammons would score 40 on Mo Walker or anybody else they can put in there. He's also a defensive monster, averaging nearly 4 blocks per game (5 against OSU) with a block rate that's third in the country. If the Gopher guards are going to penetrate - and they should be able to - they'll have to be smart with Hammons.
Despite Hammons, the Gophers are the far superior team as Purdue is still struggling with some really sub-par recruiting classes lately by their standards. There's always a danger the Gophers get wrecked inside, but that's going to be a danger no matter who they play, Purdue is just a little more dangerous in that regard that most bad teams.
Minnesota 83, Purdue 73