Thursday, January 30, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Northwestern

Meh, we move on.  I'm not surprised the Gophers lost at Nebraska, but I am a little disappointed that the team seemed to be sleep walking for much of the game.  That's not something I though would happen at all this year, but they definitely came out a bit flat.  They also went away from the game plan of trying to pound the ball inside despite Mo Walker playing well again, but I suppose that can happen when your point guard turns the ball over 9 times.  I mean, that's how many times Ferris Bueller was absent in his final high school semester - it's a lot.  The main problem, however, was once again defense, with Terran Petteway and Walter Pitchfork just shredding the Gophers.  Disappointing, but not terribly damaging to post season aspirations.  I'm mostly bummed that amazing performance by Malik Smith (called by me, see Twitter) was wasted.  I said he'd probably win a game single-handedly for the Gophers this year, and that might have been supposed to be it.  Shame.

Next up is Northwestern, and luckily it's at home so I both feel good about the Gophers' chances and also we don't have to look at that hideous purple crayon court.  Not all that long ago this would have been the kind of game where you break out the snuggly and get some hot cocoa, because Northwestern was a complete dumpster fire.  Home losses to Illinois State and DePaul, non-competitive games against good teams, their best win of the season was either over Brown (NERDS!) or Western Michigan, and an offense that was currently ranked as the worst BCS conference offense in history according to's efficiency rating.  It was a nightmare.

Now?  Well the offense is still terrible (320th in the country) and in conference play has been even worse with the Wildcats (more like Mildcats, right?) only scoring 0.85 points per possession which ranks dead last in the conference, but the results in the win/loss column have been surprisingly good.  Home wins over Illinois and Purdue and road wins at Indiana and Wisconsin have Northwestern sitting at 4-5 and sixth in the conference.  Right now they're half a game behind a bye in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.  This is ludicrous.  Chris Collins must be some kind of really short wizard, right?  Well kind of.

Obviously if your offense is putrid like a dead anaconda Ice Cube blew up you have to be winning with your defense, right?  Right, and Collins has turned a group of mostly questionable athletes used to playing a passive zone into a group that plays an absolute shut down man-to-man.  In their conference wins they've allowed 43, 47, 60 (in 2OTs), and 56 points.  It works, and it's also a very safe style of play.  They don't put any pressure on the ball, so they don't cause turnovers, they send everyone to the defensive glass so they don't allow many offensive rebounds but don't get many fast breaks themselves either, and they send everybody back after a shot so they don't get their own offensive rebounds but limit their opponents transition opportunities.  They play extremely fundamentally sound defense (NERDS!), and by not taking any chances they make the offense execute in the half court to score.  If this sounds a little scary considering Dre Hollins is still out and DeAndre Mathieu is coming off a nine turnover game, it should.

Not to harp on that defense, but they're really, really good.  Big Ten opponents have made just 29.7% of their three point attempts against them and 43.9% of their two pointers, and their effective field goal percentage against of 44.1% is tops in the Big Ten and would be #23 nationally over the entire season.  Those numbers reflect how the Wildcats are almost always in correct position which means few easy shots allowed.  They sacrifice creating steals and turnovers in exchange for always being in a shooter's face by never, ever taking chances (Cobb will occasionally but it's rare), and it's really a genius style of play for an undermanned squad in both the athletic and talent department.  Watching them is like watching an instructional video.  Yes, I've been very impressed by them.  So what?  No, I don't want to marry them.  Leave me alone.

Offensively Northwestern is pretty terrible but so is the Gopher defense so I'm shrugging my shoulders right now.  Drew Crawford is in his 8th season and with him showing no ill effects from his injury last year he's pretty much the same guy you remember and the top offensive threat for the Cats.  He's their highest usage player and also their most efficient, and is one of the few guys in the conference who excels at driving to the hoop but can hit the 3 as well, although his percentage is pretty shitty this year (32%).  The only other scary guy on the team is Tre Demps, simply because the man loves to shoot despite hitting just 39% this year (which is actually a career high - true story).  Hes' the most likely Wildcat to do the Sam Cassell Big Balls dance at some point, simply because he'll do something like play a bad game and then hit a gigantic three pointer right when they need it or make a super fancy pass for a lay-up or something.  He's a scary man cuz he just don't care.

The rest of the team is whatever and probably really smart (NERDS!).  Jershon Cobb is actually the team's second leading scorer and should probably be scarier than he is but he's basically just a mediocre jump shooter.  Alex Olah is big and tall and takes up lots of space and sometimes makes lay-ups.  Dave Sobolewski has been injured and who knows if he'll play, but it's probably good for the Gophers if he does since he's a turnover machine shooting 25% from the floor this year.  Sanjay Lumpkin mainly flails around and solves physics proofs in his head, Kale Abrahamson likes to throw the ball at the rim from far away and has a weird name, and their only real back-up big man, Nikola Cerina, actually looks like he's angry at his teammate anytime somebody passes him the ball.  And there's the guy with that jewish hat thing.

Seriously though, even if I'm not really scared of Northwestern's offense their defense can play well enough where they don't have to score very many points, and Crawford and Demps and if somebody else gets hot can definitely score just enough, especially against a pretty poor defensive team like the Gophers.

Minnesota will have to play smart and work the ball inside in the half court and take every advantage to run if any present themselves.  This is a game the Gophers could win by 20, but they could lose by 20 just as easily if they aren't careful.  Since I'm still counting myself as an optimist this year, I'm gonna say they get it done.

Minnesota 68, Northwestern 55.

[EDIT:  I somehow completely forgot to mention that Northwestern cannot figure out a press, at least without Sobolewski.  Gophers need to add more trapping to their press on Saturday.]

Friday, January 24, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Cornhuskers

Nebraska is not a great team.  Depending on your definition, they may not even be a good team.  They have, after all, lost six of their last seven games and hold only a win over Miami as anything remotely quality outside of conference play.  Nebraska, however, is certainly not the shitty team we've become accustomed to.  Of their last seven games only two were at home and many were against quality opponents, and the two home games resulted in a win over Ohio State (you can decide how much that is worth right now) and a near win over Michigan (1-pt loss where Nebraska had two chances to win).  This isn't going to be an easy walk over for the Gophers, especially with Andre Hollins almost certainly on the shelf.

On paper the key to this game will be if the Gophers stick to the offensive game plan of dribble penetration and getting the ball to the big guys on the block.  Nebraska really only has one decent interior defender in Leslee Smith (6-8 junior).  Their only other "big" is 6-10 Walter Pitchford, and he's more of one of them perimeter types.  As a result, Nebraska blocks very few shots and their overall interior defense is terrible.  Even with Hollins out, Dre Mathieu should be able to get into the paint for his suddenly unstoppable jumper and both Eliason and Mo Walker should be able find success when they get the ball down low.

Of course, Tim Miles will know this, and Tim Miles is smart, so the real key to the game will be Gopher perimeter shooting.  Nebraska is mainly a man-to-man team, but they played almost exclusively zone against Ohio State and it led to a victory, so I fully expect to see it on Sunday.  On the season the Gophers aren't exactly lighting it up from three at 35.4%, and you take Dre Hollins out of the equation and they're hitting just 34%.  The Gophers will have to hit enough shots to get Nebraska to open up that gooey soft inside.  Malik Smith can't be off, Austin Hollins has to hit at least a couple of shots, and I'm even going to say Maverick (you know he'll get some PT) will have to hit a shot or two.  If Minnesota can hit from the outside this could be a rout, but that's a pretty damn big if.

Nebraska's offense is not very good, but neither is the Gopher defense.  Unless Nebraska gets hot from three, which could happen but isn't particularly likely (although Ray Gallegos is still there, *shudder*), they're going to put up 65ish points.  The Gophers just have to score more, and they'll need some 3-balls to do it.

Gophers 74, Nebraska 65

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gophers 81, Badgers 68

Great win.  Fun win.  Quickly on to the ten things I liked and didn't like:

1.  What kind of 5-9 guy takes the ball right at a 7-footer and scores (twice!)?  What more can we say about DeAndre Mathieu at this point?  Guy is incredible.  Try to imagine a guy 15 inches taller than you with enough athletic ability to be a major college major sport athlete, then try to imagine doing literally anything with him trying to stop you, yet Honey Gopher took it right at Frank Kaminsky twice at the rim and scored.  Add in his ballhandling, passing ability, the best mid range jumper on the team, and his defense and I'm not so sure we should be talking about Andre Hollins as the best player on this team.  There just are no words left for Mathieu.  I think I've written positively about him after every single game.  It's incredible that he was late JuCo signee.  He's just so good.

2.  Please baby santa jesus let Andre Hollins be ok. Yes that was a great win without him, and it didn't have the feel of a "uh oh our best player is hurt everybody raise your game" kind of emotional win, just a straight out outplayed a good team win.  That makes me think that even worst case scenario, which I think I have already mentally prepared myself for, the Gophers will at least be ok.  That being said, obviously this team will be in much better shape for any kind of March run with Dre on the court so please please please let him be ok.  The timing is a bit of a break (I probably shouldn't use this word) because they just went through the toughest part of the schedule and have a relatively easier stretch coming, not to mention only one game in the next nine days so hopefully the rest will help.  He's getting an MRI today, so hope for some good news [EDIT: I just read that the MRI came back negative.  Whew.  Hopefully he can rest up and only miss a game or two].

3.  It would be impossible to talk about this game without mentioning Mo Walker.  Wow, I never saw that coming.  With Elliot Eliason in early foul trouble and most ineffective, Walker absolutely dominated the paint.  He fought for post up position and when he got the ball he attacked the rim, especially whenever he had a smaller player on him, and off the ball he was all over the offensive glass.  We got a glimpse of this against Ohio State when he had that miracle 60 seconds or whatever, but he put a full game together against Wisconsin and it was glorious.  I'm not quite ready to say he's arrived - his footwork is still only so so and he has a tendency to wait to long to actually go up for the shot - but he's at least on the bus and on the way.  Do you realize he had the second most shot attempts on the team in that game?  No idea where that aggressiveness has suddenly come from, but I'm a big fan.

4.  Speaking of big men, Nigel Hayes is going to be a nightmare.  As good as Walker was, I came away more impressed with Hayes than anyone else outside Honey Gopher last night.  That's about as polished a post game as I can remember seeing in a freshman in quite some time, and he's already nailing the mid range jump shot, and since he's a Badger you know that will eventually evolve into a 3-point shot a la Jon Leuer and countless others.  He needs some defensive work as most freshman do, and he'll eventually become more aggressive, but he's already got the offensive game to be a force.  Hopefully Bo Ryan does that thing where he makes him fall in love with the three pointer and stay off the block.  That would really be ideal for everyone other than the Badgers and Badger fans and screw them.

5.  I could not be more impressed with this team's offense.  The Gophers scored 1.40 points per possession and once again crushed it on two point shots, shooting 59%.  I've talked before about how I love a creative offense, but Pitino has gone completely away from that and with the team buying in it's working.  It's basically become pick and rolls with the goal dribble penetration, and picks in the lane to help the big guys established good position on the block.  They have pretty much become an attack the rim type team and a more patient team, and I'm in favor.  I love how against bad teams they spread the floor and shot a bunch of threes, to where I believe they were at about 40% of all attempts were three pointers.  Now in Big Ten play that number is just 33%, 7th in the conference.  The Gophers only took 7 three pointers last night, and seeing as how they aren't a great shooting team using that shot when it's there rather than making it a main offensive weapon seems like a good way to go. 

6.  Related, the defense was....ok.  Not to great, allowed 1.17 points per possession, but considering Wisconsin's season number is 1.20 I suppose we'll take it.  I actually had trouble figuring out what exactly the Gophers were running, and at one point I thought it might have been a match-up zone.  The more I watched, the more I realized it was a simple man-to-man but with extreme sagging into the lane away from the ball.  That's good as far as taking away dribble penetration, which has killed the Gophers, but you're playing with fire against a good three point shooting team with basically at least four shooters on the floor at all times.  Luckily the defensive energy was high and the Gophers were able to close out effectively when needed and the rotations were solid.  It helped that the Badgers missed a few open looks, but all in all a decent defensive performance against a very, very good offensive team.

7.  Malik Smith is a really valuable player.  He's just steady, a rare quality for a chucker and it might even remove him from chucker status altogether.  Do you know he has the best turnover rate on the team and one of the better ones for a guard in the conference?  Sure he takes some shots that really can only be described as "kind of dumb" and sure when he tries to drive the lane it can sometimes look like the way fourth graders drive the lane (although that was working for him last night) but he seems to be a calming influence, and kind of a leader out there which I really wasn't expecting.  He's learned how to fit into an offense where he isn't the #1 option, and has really dialed back his three point attempts.  He even tries on defense.  I thought I'd like him for his chuckeration, but I just like him as an overall piece of the team instead.

8.  Joey King simply has to be better in the post.  He's just fine as a spot up shooter and fits the stretch four role Pitino loves well in that regard, but a couple of times against Wisconsin he found himself on the block guarded by Ben Brust or Josh Gasser and when he got the ball he was unable to score and did so horribly.  It's actually an improvement that he didn't travel.  This needs to be his #1 offseason project.  For all his faults, Oto Osenieks has become the clear best option at PF, although if he's ever the trigger man on a pick-and-roll again (which he was once last night, with predictable results) the entire team should be immediately benched for allowing that to happen. 

9.  Maybe the weirdest part of all this, is I never worried.  Really.  Usually a double digit second half lead has me wondering just how the Gophers are going to screw everything up.  Usually an offense that's humming a long beautifully has me waiting for the six minute scoreless stretch that is bound to come up.  And yeah I know that happened against Michigan and against Michigan State, but yesterday had a different feel.  This team is fun to watch and they're confident, and they just seem to know what they're doing.  Maybe that's faint praise, but watching this team is night and day from last season. 

10.  As of right now, the Gophers would be in the "Should be in" category of a Bubble Watch.  As it stands right now, the Gophers would be pretty comfortably in the NCAA Tournament.  An RPI of 21 (per ESPN) with the #4 Strength of Schedule, 3 wins over Top 20 RPI teams, and zero losses outside the Top 100 is pretty much a slam dunk case.  That is why this next stretch is so important - we've seen Gopher teams rack up impressive computer numbers early, but we haven't seen one take care of business down the stretch in quite some time.  The Gophers will be favored in six of the next seven games (@Nebraska, Northwestern, @Purdue, Indiana, @Northwestern, Illinois) with only a game in Madison to break up a relatively comfortable swing.  5-2 in this stretch would basically guarantee an NCAA bid, while 4-3 would still have them in good shape since they close with Penn State at home.  This Gopher team has a chance to give Gopher fans a comfortable Selection Sunday, but that's something many Gopher teams have had an opportunity to provide, hopefully this is the one that actually comes through.

Up next is Nebraska in Lincoln, which is actually a pretty tough game.  I will try to have a preview up at some point before tip-off.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Stupid Badgers

I hope you aren't too disappointed that you didn't get a 10 Things I Liked and Didn't Like about the Iowa Game post.  The problem was that I watched it while being jumped on nearly non stop by two young children which, in case you don't know, is non conducive to making observations about some of the minutia going on at the game, which I try to do.  Additionally, I didn't work Monday so oops drunk Sunday night.  Also it's the kind of game that I didn't expect the Gophers to win and I'm not upset that they lost.  Yeah, that 10 point lead in the first half was fun and interesting and all, but unfortunately Iowa is a very good team this year and there's more important games coming up.  Essentially Iowa made every god damn open shot they had and when they missed they got the rebound.  THE END.  That's not very fun to write about, so instead we move on to Wednesday's game against the stupid, stupid Wisconsin Badgers and noted baby eater Bo Ryan.

First things first - this is not your typical Badger team.  First of all, this is the fastest paced Wisconsin team since 2007.  Second of all, after two years of absolutely elite level defense this year's Badger team is merely very good and after I watched them get torched by both Indiana and Michigan I'm willing to say they might not even be that.  I'm not disparaging Wisconsin (the team, I am definitely disparaging the state and do every day) because it would be hard to find a better non-conference resume, but this team is different.  The principles are the same, and the things they do well and struggle with are the same as every year under Bo Ryan, but overall it's a more dynamic team, a faster team, and a team that can put up a ton of points in a hurry, as Illinois can tell you.  They can still grind it out, see the Virginia game, but unlike years past controlling the tempo and speeding the game up is not necessarily a successful strategy this year.

Maybe their biggest offensive weapon is they can shoot, and that goes for essentially everyone who may get playing time against Minnesota outside of Nigel Hayes, and he adds a whole different dimension I will get into later if I don't forget.  Wisconsin has generally been super reliant on the 3-ball for their offense (some things don't change) but this season they can shoot.  They're hitting 39.2% of their 3-point attempts, their best mark since Ryan showed up, and at the same time they're shooting fewer of them, the fewest on a % of field goal attempts basis since 2009.  It's a more diverse offense because guys like Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser can actually get to the rim, and they have an actual post presence in Hayes, their first real post up guy since maybe Marcus Landry (no, Ryan Evans does not count).  In case it's not obvious, yes, I'm very scared of this team and have said so since the preseason.

Fortunately though, as Indiana and Michigan have just shown, they can be beaten.  Both were able to torch Wisconsin with hot shooting, and that's really the way to beat the Badgers.  They don't cause turnovers much at all so you're going to get your shots, it's just a matter of getting good shots and making them, and if you miss you're not likely getting another chance at it because they rebound well on the defensive end.  They still play the same suffocating up the line defense with heavy denials on the wing, so it's essential Mathieu and Dre Hollins can get past their man and into the lane to draw defenders and create open looks, because perimeter ball movement on it's own doesn't work against Wisconsin.  Of course, beating them down the court and scoring in transition is always a great option for this team as well.

One other possible advantage the Gophers have is inside, because unlike the majority of Wisconsin team's in my lifetime this team doesn't really have a big body to go up against Elliot Eliason or Mo Walker.  Frank Kaminsky is the tallest player on the team at 7-feet, but he's not exactly a banger, although he is a capable shot blocker based on his size and reach alone.  Their one rough and tough inside guy is Hayes, but he's just 6-7 and as a freshman has some issues with fouls.  I would feel better if the Gophers had more inside options or at least a power forward who is, you know, and actual power forward, but hopefully the EE/Mo combination can take advantage.

Before the Ohio State game I would have said there's no way the Gophers could beat Wisconsin, and even though Ohio State is continuing to struggle that doesn't change anything for me.  The game against the Buckeyes showed that Richard Pitino can put together a solid game plan, even one out of his preferred style of play, and the current personnel has the ability to stick to it.  Wisconsin is always so good at dictating the game that you usually end up having to adjust, it's just an advantage to the Gophers that this season the Badgers are a little more like a normal, human team.

Both teams have some solid advantages, and luckily for the Gophers their three biggest weaknesses: turnovers, getting killed on the offensive boards, and 2-point defense are things that will matter less against Wisconsin than against most foes.  It will all come down to creating open shots and making them on both sides - as long as Wisconsin doesn't shoot lights out from three (and they certainly could) I feel good about the Gophers' chances.

Minnesota 73, Wisconsin 66.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Gophers 63, Ohio State 53

I had really hoped the Gophers would manage to snag one win out of this brutal four game stretch, and here it is - so now I hope they can get two.  Sure, this win loses a little bit of luster since it was Ohio State's third straight loss, but they're going to be fine and this will still end up as a big time signature win at the end of the year.

Once again, 10 things I liked and didn't like about the game:

1.  I never thought I'd type this sentence this season, but the Gophers dominated the inside.  How good was Eliason yesterday?  No, his footwork is never going to make you think of Olajuwon, but he's managed to harness his post up game into something good enough to at least make defenses pay attention to him, and his rebounding and defense have been absolutely top notch this year to the point where he has a legitimate case as Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year if they hadn't already decided to give it to Aaron Craft before the season started.  Also have to mention Mo Walker last night, who did more good for this team in a 60 second span than he has the rest of his career combined.  I knew Ohio State had some issues in the paint but Amir Williams is Rickert-soft, and the Gophers bigs made the Buckeyes pay.

2.  The half-court offense was top notch.  I said the Gophers would need to take advantage in transition if they were going to try to compete, but once again it shows why I'm not a coach and instead just write about basketball while drunk.  I was concerned the Gophers would do that thing where they rely on the 3-ball in the half court and with OSU's perimeter defense that was never going to work.  Well it didn't work as they made just 3, but they didn't rely on it either, shooting only 14.  Instead they worked the ball around, were more patient than I can remember this team being - ever - and found good shots to where they shot 64% on two-point shots.  64%!!!!  That's insane.  Great game.

3.  I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable with the power forward spot.  Oto had a decent game, and I do like that he seems to have become the dude on the team who won't take any shit from anybody (something about having an Eastern Europeaner as the "enforcer" feels right), but it seems just about impossible for me to feel comfortable when he's in the game.  What's worse, is that I actually audibly groan when he's taken out because King is even worse.  I guess what I'm saying is, screw you NCAA for not giving us our Buckles (averaging 13 and 9 for FIU).

4.  The defensive game plan was solid too.  The pressure was soft with little to no trapping, which is a good plan against Craft and Shannon Scott if you're going to insist on pressing at all (and we know Pitino does) and half court was strictly zone, forcing the Buckeyes to beat you from the outside.  I mentioned in my preview that this was a good plan, and it worked well with solid rotations in most cases and good overall fundamental defense.  Their was a bit of an issue with LaQuinton Ross getting the ball at the free throw line and being able to score from there (he had 22) but they didn't let Craft or Scott beat them with penetration for the most part and the rebounded very well.  Excellent game on both ends, both in planning and execution. 

5.  Craft and Scott are as good as advertised defensively.  For all the hype I still came away impressed.  Very quick feet, fundamentally sound, and both have about the quickest hands I can remember seeing.  They also both have the basketball smarts to "jump routes" for lack of a better term, and each did it with success last night.  I was also impressed with Craft's ability to go over a screen but slip between his man and the screener so he doesn't give up any ground.  One other thing I noticed was that when the man they're guarding picks up the ball to pass sometimes rather than jump at him they'll jump back to try to get into the passing lane from close up, not every time, but it's not something I can recall seeing many guards do.

6.  Daquein McNeil has clearly jumped Maverick in the rotation.  Once again McNeil got the playing time that could have gone to Ahanmisi, and it's clear at this point that Pitino prefers the freshman.  Could simply be he knows neither of them is great now, but McNeil figures into his future plans while Mav is gone after this season.  McNeil certainly looks every bit the part of a freshman playing in the Big Ten for the first time, but to be fair most of the time so does Maverick.  All I know is Dawger thinks it should be Mav, which pretty much tells me that going with McNeil in those spots is the absolute right move. 

7.  I have no idea what's going on with Austin Hollins.  He did finally seem to snap out of his funk or whatever when he got his own rebound off a missed free throw and put it back in, later making a couple more FTs and getting a key steal, but he just looked lost out there for much of this game and really outside of the Purdue game hasn't been much of a factor in Big Ten play - or at least not a positive factor.  At this point he seems to be having trouble with basic skills like dribbling and catching, and it's really weird.  I don't know if it's a confidence issue or what, but given that Pitino seems to have raised the confidence level of pretty much every other player that seems unlikely.  I'm going to chalk it up to he's pressing a bit given it's his senior year, and assume at some point the real Austin Hollins comes back.  That would be helpful.

8.  Did you ever think a late signing, 5-9 Juco point guard would be this good?  I know I didn't, but thank god for the Honey Gopher who has clearly taken the point guard position over and allowed Dre Hollins to move to the #2, a move that helps the team immensely.  There was a string there in the second half when it looked like Ohio State might be making a move, but Mathieu hit a couple of short jumpers in order to keep the Gophers ahead - as big as Mo's big stretch was, Mathieu's might have been even bigger.  His assist to Dre to hit that monster three towards the end of the game was a thing of beauty, and a sign of a perfect match of player to coach as, in reality, the best move may have been to slow things down and run clock, but Mathieu has the freedom to run and create, and it worked to perfection.  He's one of the most fun players to watch I can remember in a while.  If you ever hear anyone say that Honey Gopher needs to slow down or play more in control I'm going to need you to hit them in the face with a shovel.  Please.  I don't ask you for much.

9.  Turnovers remain an issue.  18 turnovers and a 29% turnover rate is absolutely horrendous, and pulling out a win despite those numbers just shows how well every other facet of the game went for the Gophers last night.  In their five Big Ten games the Gophers are turning the ball over 21.8% of the time, dead last in the conference.  This might be skewed a bit because the Gophers have already played the top two defenses in the conference in Michigan State and Ohio State, but no doubt this is a major concern.

10.  An NCAA bid now becomes a very reasonable goal.  The Gophers are now 14-4 and 3-2 in conference play, with an RPI of 26 and SoS of 13 (per ESPN), and two wins already over RPI Top 25 teams (Ohio State, Florida State) - those are some pretty awesome numbers, and based on the fact that the SoS will probably go up rather than down and the RPI is so good right now, I'll say nine Big Ten wins gets the Gophers in.  Simple math says that means six more victories.  These games are there for the taking:  @Nebraska, Northwestern, @Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana, and Penn State.  Those games will likely see the Gophers favored, and those are your six wins right there.  There is also Purdue on the road which is certainly winnable.  If the Gophers win all those they're in.  If they lose one and win at Purdue they're in.  And if they manage to win any of the other games, any at all, any other major upset, and it would take a pretty bad collapse to keep them out.

So, you know.  Let's not do that.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Ohio State

The Buckeyes are reeling, having lost two straight - on the road at Michigan State and at home to Iowa.  With some coaches/teams you might say that this is a great time to play them, when they might not be sure what's going on with them and perhaps their confidence is shot.  But this is Ohio State and Thad Matta, a team that's 15-2 and has won at least 29 games each of the last four seasons, and a team made up mostly of upperclassmen.  They're going to be mighty pissed.

Iowa managed to score 84 points against Ohio State, which is pretty incredible considering how good Ohio State is when it comes to defense, ranking 7th in overall defensive efficiency.  That's the first time the Buckeyes have given up that many points in almost two full seasons, and Iowa's 1.14 points per possession would rank Ohio State as a bottom 20 defense in the entire NCAA if that was a full season number.  Iowa was able to turn a Buckeye team over quite, a feat considering Ohio State takes pretty good care of the basketball, and convert a lot of those turnovers into points.  They also got into the paint and attacked the rim, shooting 55% from two (Ohio State allows just 43% shooting from two on the year).  The Gophers have a chance at replicating the turnovers, but Ohio State's incredible perimeter defense has me concerned that they won't be able to score enough points to keep up with the Buckeyes.

Ohio State absolutely shuts down the three-point line, both by limiting looks overall and by playing tough enough defense that opponents only make 26.9% of their attempts (7th in the country).  IOwa doesn't rely on the three and didn't against Ohio State, shredding them at the rim instead.  The Gophers, as we know, are heavily reliant on the three pointer.  Basically their offense matches up horribly against Ohio State. Additionally, the Gopher offense is heavily predicated on the guards making things happen with their three highest usage players (Draustin Hollins and the Honey Gopher) creating off penetration.  Once again, Ohio State's defense is set up perfectly to defend against this with Aaron Craft (not overrated, despite how often you have to hear about him) and Shannon Scott (nearly as good as Craft, if not as fundamentally sound) guarding a team's main ballhandlers and Sam Thompson and Amir Williams in the middle to block shots.  The Gophers are going to need to get transition opportunities and take advantage of them in order to score.

They should be able to get them, because offensively Ohio State is good but not great.  They're very efficient on two pointers (54%), but struggle a bit from three (34%) despite taking a big percentage of their shots from behind the arc (36%, 91st in NCAA).  If the Gophers play mainly zone, and I expect they will and they probably should, the hope would be the Buckeyes get into chucker mode and don't get hot.  If so, the Gophers need to run and run fast on every miss, because that will be their best opportunity for transition offense and the Buckeyes don't hit the offensive glass all that well.  Turnovers will likely be limited since Minnesota relies on steals quite a bit and Ohio State is the #1 team in the country at avoiding steals.

Personnel wise Ohio State is loaded with former high ranking recruits, and although none of them have become an offensive star they have seven guys who score between 7 and 13.6 points per game, and they play more like an NBA team when they have the ball, eschewing 2-point jump shots and either taking 3s or getting the ball to the rim.  6-8 swingman LaQuinton Ross is the closest thing they have to a go-to #1 option (leading scorer at 13.6ppg and only player with a real high shot %), and he's also the most likely to get lured into taking bad shots so hopefully that happens.  6-4 shooting guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the only other double digit scorer (12.2ppg) and he's one of the most efficient players in the conference because he avoids those two point jumpers (just 13% of his shots) choosing instead to shoot 3s (37% accuracy) or drive (61% on twos).  Despite only hitting 20 points once this year, he's probably the guy who scares me the most.

The rest of the team kind of takes their offense where they can get it.  Craft generally only shoots when he has either a wide open 3-pointer or can take it to the basket (9.1ppg), which he does often.  Scott (8.3ppg) is really fast, and although he's more likely to force up an outside shot he also excels at getting to the rim.  Amir Williams (9.6ppg) is pretty much the team's only post player and pretty much scores in the post and on offensive putbacks.  He's also the team's best rebounder (6.7rpg) although Ohio State really rebounds by committee with all 6 players who play 20 or more minutes averaging 3+ boards per game.  Sam Thompson (7.6ppg) will spend time in the paint as well, he's a Rodney Williams-like athlete with a better mid-range game. 6-7 freshman Marc Loving looks like he could be the next DeShaun Thomas with 7.0ppg in just 13 minutes per, and Amedeo Della Valle plays limited minutes (13mpg) but he's the closest thing Ohio State has to a shooter (37% from three, 68% of attempts from there) and against the Gophers zone we're certain to see him come in.

Vegas will likely have Ohio State as a 3-point favorite, and that seems about right to me.  Iowa showed that Ohio State is beatable and the Gophers the ability to beat them.  Run, attack the rim, hit the three when it's there, and limit dribble penetration by the Buckeyes and force them to become a jump shooting team.  Maybe easier said than done, but Iowa was able to do these things and come away with a huge win, and the Gophers have shown against Syracuse and Michigan State that they can compete with some of the nation's best.  Unfortunately, they've also shown against Syracuse and Michigan State that they can't close, and until they do I can't quite believe in them against a top tier opponent.

Ohio State 68, Minnesota 64

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Michigan State 87, Minnesota 75 (OT)

I suppose I'm so supposed to write about this game, but I really don't think I can.  Part of it is it's just too hard to right about a game that goes down like this, a game where you don't think your team has a chance and have no expectations.  Then they play so incredibly well, you find yourself believing they have a chance, but you still don't quite let yourself think it could happen.  Then something happens, like say a whipped pass from Dre Hollins to Mo Walker to give your team a 10 point lead, and you can't help it but you're all in.  Then the bottom falls out, but wait there's hope, and then you get curb stomped.  Too hard to write anything.  Plus I missed the entire last 10 minutes (listened on the radio at least) and all of overtime because I was stupid and made plans to take my damn wiener kids to the aquarium.  I did manage to pull up the game on btn2go on my phone, but once I got it started the Gophers were already down 9 in the OT and frankly looking at sharks just seemed more appealing.

I could probably cobble together the usual 10 things I liked and didn't like (I do have some notes I made since I'm a huge nerd), but honestly I just don't think I have it in me.  Plus, Aaron Paul didn't win the Golden Globe and I've been watching Illinois and Northwestern so really, it's a pretty rough weekend.   I guess I went with the kids to the shark thing and then on Sunday I got to go see the new Hobbit movie which pretty much rules so it wasn't a completely lost weekend, but man the basketball part sucked.  The gambling part was pretty bad too.  Mostly because I suck.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hoops Preview: Gophers vs. Michigan State

Well here we go.  The next four games see the Gophers playing at Michigan State (#9 team per kenpom), home to Ohio State (#1), at Iowa (#13) and home to Wisconsin (#3).  Things get easier after that, but if the Gophers can come out of this stretch with even one win it will be a success.  Unfortunately, this first game in East Lansing is going to be the toughest game to get.

Sparty is 14-1, with their only loss against giant killler but get beat by crappy teams North Carolina.  That was a home game, so it's not like Michigan State is invincible at the Breslin Center, but pretty much they are.  This team is good at basically everything.  They shoot over 40% from three, they shoot 52% from two, they don't turn the ball over much and they will turn you over.  They rebound well, although their offensive rebounding is only so-so, but against the Gophers I'm guessing they'll do just fine.  They share the basketball incredibly well (assists on 62% of their made baskets, 12th best in the country) and have four players averaging double figures in points per game.  They like to attack the rim and get the ball into the post.  Their only weakness is they don't get to the free throw line often and don't shoot well when they get there.  Well, that and their overall depth.

Michigan State has four really incredible players in guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris, forward Branden Dawson, and center Adreian Payne.  Then they have two pretty good players in swingman Denzel Valentine and guard Travis Trice.  And that's it.  Only one other player (forward Matt Costello) outside of those six plays more than nine minutes per game.  Trice missed last game with an illness, so the Gophers best hope would be that whatever that illness was spreads like wildfire through the Spartan locker room and knocks out at least two of the four studs for the game.  Or control the tempo and get Sparty running and hope they get tuckered.  Or something.

Really though, when your press and half court defense have just been shredded by Purdue and Penn State and you're about to take a big step up in class of opponent things really aren't pretty.  I have been trying to think of how the Gophers could win this game, and outside of the illness thing or insanely hot three point shooting I can't come up with anything.  Even their fifth guy, Valentine, is perfect to go up against the Gophers because he's a great passer for a wing player and should be able to shred the Gophers' zone when he gets the ball at the free throw line.  North Carolina beat Michigan State by holding them to a horrendous shooting night and attacking the paint on offense.  They used their depth in the front court to bully the Spartans' thin front court on both ends of the court.  Unfotunately, the Gophers can't copy that game plan, and I can't come up with a good one.  Maybe they'll overlook the Gophers after their monster win over Ohio State.  I don't know.  I'm stumped.  Fortunately, Richard Pitino is smarter than me (probs).  I just don't know that it's possible.

Michigan State 84, Minnesota 67

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Minnesota 68, Penn State 65

After the Purdue game I wrote "a win is a win."  After this game, I'll say a road win in the Big Ten is a road win in the Big Ten.  Despite one of the worst stretches of the season since the Arkansas game, the Gophers played a little better down the stretch, took advantage of some luck with Penn State's two best players fouling out, and got a conference road win.  I'll take it.  Mostly because I don't exactly have a choice.  Anyway, here are 10 things I liked and didn't like about the Penn State game:

1.  No matter how ugly the game was, the Gophers made the plays they needed to down the stretch.  And yes, it was crazy ugly, but they did what they needed too.  Malik Smith nailing four key free throws after not hitting a thing all day.  DeAndre Mathieu with a huge steal and a huge tip in after struggling to score most of the first half.  Austin Hollins, having maybe his worst game as a Gopher which is hard to envision after how he played against Michigan, coming up with an absolute monster steal right when the Gophers needed it.  Maybe it doesn't get to that point if Frazier and Newbill don't foul out, and maybe none of those plays get made and Penn State coasts to a W.  But guess what?   They did, they didn't, and the Gophers did what they needed to win.  It probably seems a bit Pollyanna-ish, which is generally against my character, but screw it, this is most likely a lost year between coaches anyway, so I'm gonna take what I can get.

2.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, could stop Tim Frazier.  Mathieu tried, both Hollinses tried, even Ahanmisi tried and it didn't matter, because Frazier could get into the lane whenever he wanted - and he wanted to a lot.  And I don't know if it was by design as an overreaction to the end of the Purdue game, but it seemed like every time Frazier (or one of their crappy guards, even) got into the lane the Gopher help hung back, giving Frazier floater after floater after floater as the world's worst announcing team was happy to tell you over and over and over again.  Luckily he fouled out right as we were getting down to it, and I don't think the Gophers win that game if he's still on the floor because, like I said, the Gophers had zero ability to stop his dribble penetration.

That's now three straight Big Ten games and dribble penetration has been a major, major issue in all three, and most of it is coming off ball screens.  Early in the game, when the Gophers had control, the big men were hedging well and pushing the ball handler out until the screened man could recover and all was well.  Then it all went to shit.  The Gopher bigs started hedging too early or too late, and when Penn State started doing the double pick at the top of the key for Frazier the Gophers basically started committing four players to dealing with it, which meant there were skip passes available.  I'm starting to think the Gophers just don't have the personnel to handle most Big Ten teams defensively, and that's no good for anyone.

3.  Elliott can kind of control the paint.  Another double double with four blocks, and it looked early like the Gopher game plan was going to force feed him the ball on the block and it was working.  Even when Mo was in getting him the ball down low was working offensively.  Then the Gophers decided to go completely away from that strategy and become a jump shooting team again.  Do you know that Eliason only had two field goal attempts in the second half, and one of them came on a tip in?  Not that he should be getting a ton of FGAs, but when he's demonstrated already that Penn State struggles to guard him I wouldn't mind seeing a touch or two, you know?  And I'm not even sure Walker played in the second half.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but against most teams Elliott needs to be an offensive focal point, just for variety's sake.  Not against Michigan State.

3.  I've always been an Oto defender, but he's just lost out there far too often.   He has no idea where to go on defense, and that goes for both his positioning as well as things like hedging on screens and help defense.  These things aren't new, but as his playing time becomes more and more high profile they just stand out more and more.  Then he does things like, let's a pass go through his legs five hole style and then falls down trying to go after it which leads to a Penn State lay-up, or he let's himself get pushed under the basket on a Penn State free throw leading to a Nittany Lion rebound in a big, big, big spot.  And it's not like it's just this game, you can point to at least 2-3 mistakes of his each game, easy.  I think he's got some offensive ability as the jump shot seems to have come back as Pitino's given him more confidence to take open shots, and he brilliantly slipped a screen at one point and then nailed the 18 footer, but I really don't know if he can offset his piss poor defense with his mediocre offense.  Then again, the only other choice at the 4 spot is a Joey King who completely panics any time he has the ball in a non scoring position, so really Pitino is pretty well screwed here.

4.  Speaking of things that are horrible, Stephen Bardo is just the worst announcer ever.  Repetitious, stating the obvious, creating a narrative and sticking with it no matter what, repetitious, infatuated with anyone banking in a shot, and he tends to repeat the same thing over and over again.  Honestly, how many times did you hear that the Gophers were the best free throw shooting team in the Big Ten but were having a bad game?  Or that it was a miracle Penn State was winning even though Newbill was barely playing due to foul trouble?  How about him trying to sell the fact that bad free throw shooting is contagious.  Seriously, once I noticed how horrible he was I kept waiting to see if he'd bring any insight at all to the broadcast, and he did - once.  When Oto slipped that screen mentioned above, Bardo made sure to point it out and even explain it.  But that was it.  There was literally not one single other word he uttered that added to the broadcast.  Someone should light his car on fire.

5.  I'm all for consistency and installing a system, but if it's not working I'm not sure sticking with it makes sense.  Naturally I'm talking about the press, which wasn't working and was creating easy buckets for Penn State who kept beating the Gophers down the floor and creating odd man rush situations and wasn't creating any turnovers or easy baskets for Minnesota.  I suppose I shouldn't have expected it, given that he never backed off when Arkansas was shredding the Gophers.  Normally I would say you need to adapt your system to your personnel and if it's not working it's not working, but in this case I think I'm ok with it.  Pitino likely knows his ceiling is an NCAA bid this year and next and it's not likely either team will have much of any chance to go further, so it's all about building his brand for the class of 2015 and beyond.  Let those kids see how Minnesota basketball is balls to the wall and fun fun fun for 40 minutes and hope it pays dividends.  It's going to cause some ugly situations, like tonight, but it should pay off down the road.  I hope.  Please. 

6.  Penn State doubled on a lot of ball screens, and neither team took advantage.  The point of doubling on a ball screen of course, is to create turnovers, and although the Gophers turned it over an uncomfortable 14 times I can't remember even one coming off of a Penn State double.   If you're not turning it over on a double, that means you should be able to find an open man and unless the defensive rotations are very tight you should be able to get an open shot.  That didn't happen either.  And it wasn't because Penn State's rotations were so great, more that the Gophers were slow to swing the ball, or hesitant to drive the ball, or just couldn't make the right pass.  Overall the Gopher offense was pretty rough tonight, and getting a win on a night when things just aren't working properly is probably a good sign.  Or not.  I don't know.  This team is frustrating.

7.  Malik Smith has proven himself to be a very valuable Gopher, but I'm not exactly sure he should be driving the paint.  I love a lot of what he brings, and my buddy, "The Bear" has taken to calling him J.R. after J.R. Smith which is pretty much perfect, but when he puts the ball on the floor and drives it's an adventure.  As with all true chuckers, which Malik most definitely is even though he has toned it down a bit from his FIU days, once he has the ball in the paint he's damn sure he's going to be able to score which leads to some, um, creative moves.  And creative can work, just look at Mathieu and Dre Hollins when they get into the lane, but that's not exactly something that's in his skill set.  When he puts his head down and heads to the hole it's kind of like Mav bringing the ball up against the press - just hope things don't go too terribly wrong and somebody gets lucky.

8.  Dre Mathieu's gambling finally paid off.  Dre has a habit of going after a steal, and I don't mean jumping passing lanes, I mean he tries to pick pockets all the freaking time.  He loves both not moving his feet and swiping at the ball in front of him and trying to sneak around behind a ball handler and poke the ball out from behind.  I can't actually remember any of this working for him this year, although with a steal rate in the top 70 of the country it must have happened, but I remember plenty of times he put himself completely out of proper defensive position.  Tonight, however, he managed to poke the ball away from whoever it was that's Penn State's third ball handler is in one of the biggest spots of the game and, I guess, the season so far.  I've said I like my point guard a little bit reckless, and that includes defense when you're as fast with hands as quick as Mathieu's, so I'm ok with all this, I'm just happy to see it pay off in a big, big way.

9.  Speaking of the Honey Gopher, he just doesn't quit and I love it.  Mathieu's best move is to drive way into the lane, probably too far truth be told, and then figure out what he's doing from there.  At just 5-9 and against Big Ten big men, both in size and ability, this can lead to some really ugly shots and/or turnovers - and it has, no doubt.  But in a situation where that wasn't working many less confident players would change their game and start playing differently, but Honey Gopher just kept pounding away and it paid off huge for Minnesota with him scoring the team's last four field goals including two absolute monsters.  He's proven himself to be a huge late get for Pitino, and he's perfect for what Pitino wants to do on both sides of the court. I am a big, big fan.

10.  Illinois is ranked?!??!?!  How can this be?  I'm watching the game and all of a sudden the flash up "Next, #23 Illinois takes on #4 Wisconsin" and I was like, wait, Illinois is ranked?  The same team who lost to Georgia freaking Tech?  The same team who almost lost to UIC, IPFW, and Dartmouth?  The team whose best win was a lucky one over Missouri? Sorry folks, but Illinois is terrible.  Completely terrible.  Fact.  And losing to Wisconsin by like, a hundred or something just proves I'm right.  You watch, the Gophers will lose by less at Wisconsin than Illinois, and that's a guarantee I would have made before tonight, too. 

Alright so I admit most of these things sound negative even though they won, but seriously that was a really ugly win.  There is, and I'm not saying anything you don't know, a whole lot of major flaws with this team and right now it's really difficult to envision them upsetting any of the top tier Big Ten teams.  Right now I can come up with 6 maybe 7 more games they really should win, but 3 of those are on the road so it's hard to think they can take all 3 down.  They're going to need to win the games they should and steal at least 1, two depending on how many the drop where they shouldn't.  It's going to be awfully tough to get an NCAA bid, but hey, what the hell, right?  I'll just enjoy the ride.  Until I end up throwing the remote at my TV.  But if I didn't do it tonight, maybe I'm actually a level headed fan?  Seems unlikely, but hey, on Boy Meets World Eric goes from a girl obsessed but mostly normal teenager to a completely ditzy buffoon of a college kid, so I guess anything is possible.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Penn State

The Gophers head into State College to take on Penn State, and as usual the Nittany Lions aren't necessarily very good, but can still be dangerous.  Given that conference road games are usually a little dicey, I don't exactly have a great feeling about this one.  They haven't really done much since they beat St. John's back in November, losing to Ole Miss, Pitt, Princeton, Michigan State, and Illinois since then, but I'm scared anyway.  Penn State can look really good - like when they scored 47 points in the first half against the Spartans - and they can look really bad - such as when they scored 16 in the second half of that same game.  Last time out Penn State scored just 55 points on less than 30% shooting against Illinois, so it'll be on the Gophers to sack up and play some defense and beat this team down.

Penn State can hurt you in a variety of ways what with five players who averaged double figures in scoring.  It all starts with do everything point guard Tim Frazier (averaging 17 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game) although good news for the Gophers is he's been horrible in Big Ten play this year, shooting 6-23 while averaging just 8.5 points and 3 assists.  Frazier's overall numbers are in line with his career levels, but he's just been held down by a couple of very good defenses.  Given that the Gophers' are struggling defensively this year, Frazier is a great player who is due to bounce back in a big way, and home games have a tendency to help get slumps straightened out, I'm more than a little afraid of Frazier in this game.

Of course, Frazier isn't even their leading scorer.  That would be 6-4 shooting guard D.J. Newbill, who is averaging 18 per game and has only been held under 15 once this season (last game against Illinois).  Newbill is a pretty solid scorer who can get to the rim and has a good mid-range jumper.  He can also knock down the three pointer (43% this year) although it's not his main skill.  If Penn State has a guy who will kill the Gophers with threes it's probably Josh Johnson, a transfer from Pitt who hit 38% two seasons ago. He just became eligible three games ago and has gone 6-10 from behind the arc in those games while scoring 18+ points twice.  Two bench guards, Graham Woodward (from Minnesota yay!) and Allen Roberts are three-point specialists who the Gophers have to hope don't get hot. 

Penn State's front court is pretty much made up of three guys:  The athletic stretch 4 who can block shots and hit threes in Brandon Taylor, the gritty, hustly, dirty work rebounder in Ross Travis, and the guy who comes off the bench in Donovan Jack.  All three are just good enough to have a monster game and throw everything out of whack - Taylor had 18 points with 5 threes against Michigan State, Travis had 17 points and 13 rebounds against Ole Miss, and Jack scored 18 against both LaSalle and Marshall.  Given the Gophers issues with dribble penetration and interior defense, expect at least one of these guys to go off.  The Nittany Lions also have a seven footer in sophomore Jordan Dickerson, but he didn't see the court until the last three games, although playing 15 minutes last game against Illinois means he may become a rotation piece and the Gophers could see him.

Overall, I think the Gophers are definitely the better team.  They have another point in their favor in that Penn State doesn't have a true center outside of Dickerson, so the Gophers will have opportunities to go with a smaller lineup, and let's face it the team is markedly better when neither Oto Osenieks nor Joey King are on the court.  Not in the Gophers' favor is that this is a road game in the Big Ten, and Penn State can score points.  The Gophers will just need to make enough jumpers to out score them.

Minnesota 77, Penn State 74

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gophers 82, Purdue 79

A win is a win, right?  The Gophers looked absolutely dominant for a while, but naturally that couldn't last.  As Snacks said, when the Gophers were up 6 with 25 seconds left I kept wondering how they were going to blow it, whereas if Purdue was up 6 with 25 seconds left I would have already left the building conceding a loss. The life of a Gopher (and Minnesota sports in general) fan is not a pretty one.  Anyway I don't really give a crap that they nearly blew the game and won by just 3, they won.  Good enough for me.

Once again, here are 10 things I liked and didn't like:

1.  Defense in the first 30 minutes.  Now, to be fair, for the first 30 minutes Painter's team looked suspiciously like an old Tubby team (may be a bit of a cheap shot but honestly that's what it looked like), but the Gophers did an excellent job of limiting Purdue, a big reason they opened up nearly a 20 point lead.  They kept Purdue out of the paint and turned them into a jump shooting team, which is not a strength of the Boilers.  Their offense mainly consisted of swinging the ball around the perimeter and, even when the managed to get it to the man at the free throw line the ball generally came right back out again quickly.  A.J. Hammons got a couple of touches down low and was reasonably effective, but the Gophers limited those as well.  The zone did what it was supposed to do for 30 minutes, and that was great. 

2.  Defense in the last ten minutes.  At the 9:50 mark, in mid-possession, Painter took a time out.  I don't know what he said or how he said it, but from that point on the Boilers did nothing but attack attack attack.  They picked up the pace after both misses and makes, and when they did have to settle into the half court there was no more perimeter work, it was all dribble drives - and it worked.  Purdue outscored the Gophers 34-20 from that point, and dam near ended up stealing the game.  From 9:50 - 2:50, before things got a bit more desperate on their end, they only took 2 three-pointers, preferring to get into the lane, as they should.  The Gophers' interior defense is always going to be a concern, and it was again big time at the end of this game.

3.  Draustin Hollins got their swerve back.  This one is obvious to anybody who either watched the game or glanced at the box score, but one game after both Hollins brothers played the worst game of their career they were back in a big way. Dre scored 17 and had 5 assists, and Austin scored 18 to go with 9 rebounds.  Maybe more importantly, both showed the same confidence they had in the past so they aren't suffering any ill effects from being utterly horrible against Michigan.  Not that I necessarily expected them to, but then again remember Nick Anderson.  It's not exactly a secret that the Gophers need these two in order to win games, so hopefully they got all the horribleness out of their system in that one game.

4.  Daquean McNeil looked goodish?  Due to Honey Gopher and Malik Smith picking up two fouls each in the first half, causing Pitino to put out some goofy lineups (hopefully we never see McNeil, Ahanmisi, King, Walker, and Smith ever again).  It also meant freshman McNeil was pressed into service and ended up playing 13 minutes in a Big Ten game which is pretty scary.  He had his bad moments, such as the three pointer he air mailed by at least 3 feet, but in general he looked pretty in control with a decent looking jumper and an ability to score in the paint that looked better than I expected.  I've been a bit nervous about McNeil, given that he was an FIU recruit who is suddenly on a Big Ten team, but I definitely liked what I saw.  I don't expect him to surpass Ahanmisi on the depth chart simply because Mav is a senior, but it wouldn't shock me either.

5.  The Fargo-Moorhead Acro Team was awesome as usual.  Seriously, just the best half time show anywhere ever.  You dopes who prefer Quick Change or those dumb dogs or any of that other crap are seriously, epically stupid.  And I hate you.

6.  A.J. Hammons is an absolute monster.  But you know how many shot attempts he had?  Three.  I'm feeling generous so I'll give some of the credit for that to Elliott Eliason's defense and the Gopher defensive scheme, but man was he criminally underutilized.  There were a couple of times Hammons was in and Eliason was on the bench, meaning Joey King or Oto or Mo were guarding Hammons, and Purdue didn't make any kind of effort to make sure he got a touch.  If I'm Purdue he needs to be getting on touch on nearly every possession, but he's actually seventh on the team in percentage of shots taken when he's on the court.  If Purdue wants to have any success this season, that needs to change.  They probably still won't be able have any success, but that would at least be a start.

7.  Offensive creativity seemed to be lacking.  Just one game after I wrote about how impressed I was with some of the plays Pitino was drawing up for this team, they seemed to regress a bit.  Granted the Gophers scored 82 points so it was working just fine so this isn't really a major complaint, but I really get a kick out of cool looking offensive plays and I didn't see any against Purdue.  The only wrinkle I noticed is when the Gophers run a pick and roll, which seems to be nearly every time down (again, not a complaint necessarily) the picker comes off a down screen before heading up to set his pick.  Maybe this is common, but I've never noticed it before.  I've never watched as closely as I am now, but seemed note worthy. 

8.  That was some of the worst refereeing I've ever seen down the stretch.  I am not one to complain about refs.  I recognize the human element, that no ref is out to screw one particular team, and even most bad calls have an element where you could see why the call was missed, but those guys were just brutal today.  The stretch where Eliason (what is this, and Eliason blog all of a sudden) got mugged going to the rim by two guys and had no call and the ball given to Purdue followed by an absolute clean block by Eliason (see) that was called a foul because, according to the refs signal, he moved his arms down even though he clearly didn't was horrendous.  Unfortunately with Ed Hightower's retirement I don't know the name of any refs anymore, but if I did the guy I'd hate the most would be that little bald guy from today's game.  That guy was horrible. 

9. Random trapping is good.  I'm a big fan of pressure defense.  I like a full court press and I love high pressure in the half court, simply because guards are so important and if you keep the pressure up it makes it harder for a team to run their offense (this may be part of the reason why Hammons only had 3 shots).  I like trapping even more, and throughout most of the non-conference schedule the Gophers were a pressure team who didn't trap often.  Against Purdue they busted out a random half court trap a handful of times, and although I don't remember specifically if it caused any turnovers I'm a big fan of mixing it up. It'll work in a big spot at some point.

10.  I still don't really know what to think of this Gophers team.  Let me get this straight, they barely lose in a game where Draustin Hollins plays horribly, but then they barely win a game where Draustin Hollins plays about as well as you could ever expect.  I suspect the team is more of who we saw against Michigan and the last ten minuets against Purdue, but I like to think they're closer to who we saw against Syracuse and first 30 against Purdue.  I really just don't know.  It's hard to trust a jump shooting team.  I fully believe they're going to win a game they have no business winning when 2-3 guys are running hot, and I know they're going to lose a game they shouldn't when nobody can shoot.  Was that the Michigan game?  I don't know.  Was today the day when everybody was running hot and they still only beat Purdue at home by 3?  I don't know.  I can't remember the last time I was this unsure about a team's outlook.  Oh I've been wrong plenty of times, but I usually at least have an opinion.  Not this year, but I know I'm enjoying the hell out of this.

I'm gonna watch Road House now.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Michigan 63, Gophers 60


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 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

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hoops Preview: Gophers vs. Wolverines

Oh hey there.  Been a while.  I didn't mean to not post the entire holiday break, but I was sort of busy and extremely lazy so here we are.  Doesn't matter now though, because I'm back as the Gophers kick-off the Big Ten season, and the real beginning of the Richard Pitino era (hopefully it ends up being an era or something), and I, for one, and absolutely thrilled they're opening the conference season at home against Michigan - it's the perfect measuring stick.  I'm still not exactly sure what to make of this Gopher team, but we should be able to learn a whole lot Thursday night.

Michigan is a good, but not great team, that sits at 8-4 with three completely understandable losses (road games at Duke and Iowa State, home game vs. Arizona) and one weird loss (vs. Charlotte in Puerto Rico).  They rank highly according to at #20, but that's not so much higher than the Gophers (who rank #34).  They're also without their dominant (potentially) big man in Mitch McGary leaving ho-hum guys Jordan Morgan (in his seventh year) and Jon Horford as their only real post players, meaning the Wolverines don't have a clear match-up advantage over the Gophers.  Perfect opponent to open.

If the Gophers in, they'll be in the running for an NCAA bid since this is the kind of game an NCAA tournament team wins.  If they lose, we will know that the NCAA is not a likely result this year.  Pretty simple stuff.  If this was a road game you can't really definitely say you learned anything because road conference games can be super weird, while a home win over somebody like Purdue tells you nothing (though a loss would) and a loss at home to somebody like Ohio State doesn't really tell you anything either, and a win might not either.  But this is pretty simple - Michigan is pretty much the demarcation line between good Big Ten teams and bad ones - so win this game and things look good for the season outlook.

It's also an interesting test in another way because many of the people who criticized the Pitino hire liked to say that the uptempo style he'd like to run wouldn't work in the Big Ten.  Michigan is one of the slowest team's in the country (rank #304) and behind just Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern in the conference.  Michigan doesn't turn it over and they love to shoot the three ball (this is a Beilein team after all), and are quite good at it, so if the press + zone isn't on it's game there is serious potential for Michigan to blow this game open - in fact, I'd say a Michigan double-digit win is actually more likely than a Gopher double-digit win, even if, spoiler alert, I'm going to pick the Gophers to win the game.  This year's Michigan team actually profiles a lot like a typical Wisconsin team, so the Gophers will need to be highly in sync on defense to hold Michigan down.

The Wolverines are lead by one of the most interesting players in the NCAA in my opinion in Nik Stauskas.  With Tre Burke and Tim Hardaway off to the NBA somebody was going to have to step up on this team and many assumed it would be Glenn Robinson.  Although Robinson's scoring is up (14.2ppg vs. 11.0 ppg) it's because he's taking a few more shots and his percentages and efficiencies remain basically the same.  Stauskas, on the other hand, has exploded and completely changed his game.  Last season he was the designated 3-point bomber, this year he's expanded his game and become their go to guy (18.2ppg vs. 11.0ppg).  He's still a major threat from 3 (48% on 5.5 attempts per game), but he's also been taking the ball to the rim more and that's resulted in a lot more free throw opportunities.  He's the rare player who has upped his possessions but upped his efficiency as well, and he's very dangerous spotting up in transition.  Frankly he's terrifying.

Michigan's other threats are all guards as well in freshman point guard Derrick Walton, freshman wing Zak Irvin, and sophomore wing Caris LeVert.  Walton is the team's true point guard, and like most freshmen point guards he's struggled with turnovers and his shot.  He's basically the team's top ballhandler but is also the only turnover prone player on the team, which works out well for the Gophers.  Irvin is a versatile scorer but has basically turned himself into this year's Stauskas, which has to be kind of infuriating for Michigan fans since I feel like he could be so much more.  Then again I suppose you could do worse than 40% on 5.5 three point attempts per game with minimal turnovers.  Finally, LeVert is another primary ball handler and another guy who has upped his usage big time this year (from under 3 shots per game to over 10).  Overall he's been very efficient and, surprise, never turns it over, but he's also been really all over the map in terms of effectiveness as a scorer (his last five games he's scored 24-4-15-1-16).  Not letting LeVert be the third scorer the Wolverines need will be a major key for Minnesota.

Outside of that core there's not much offense to be found.  Spike Albrecht has the ability to hit a bunch of threes (see: first half of National Title game) but mainly has proven himself to be a capable back-up point guard.  As previously mentioned big guys Horford and Morgan grab some rebounds, set some picks, and can block some shots (which is where they'll mostly be effective against the Gophers - turning back guard penetration).  Horford is a little more versatile as he has a little bit of a jump shot while Morgan has none, but neither should make any kind of major impact on the game offensively.

In a lot of ways this Michigan team is built to take apart a team that plays the way the Gophers do - slow it down, don't turn it over against the press, and exploit the open three-point opportunities which will present themselves against the zone and in transition.  I'd actually really like to see the Gophers mix in a good bit of man-to-man in this game since I don't think Michigan can take advantage of any mis-matches, but a well drilled zone team can shut down a 3-point team as well by closing out on threes and making the offense take bad shots (see: Syracuse vs. Villanova).  Should be fun to see.

Basically if the Gophers are a NCAA Tournament caliber team they'll win this game.  If they don't win this game, most likely they aren't a NCAA Tournament team.  I believe that either the zone will work, or Pitino is a good enough coach and a coach willing to make changes that the Gophers will end up in a man-to-man and I think the advantage shifts to the Gophers in that case.  I choose to believe.

Minnesota 74, Michigan 66

Also, before we get to the pictures, check out this Gopher Hoops Rube Roundtable including yours truly put together by the guys over at From the Barn, a tradition in it's third year (I did not participate last season because I completely forgot).  Anyway, it's good stuff, check it out.