Eleven Big Tens wins, a year after 8 total wins, is nothing short of remarkable. Reggie Lynch, Akeem Springs (RIP), and Amir Coffey had huge impacts, but the coach and returning players deserve a considerable amount of credit as well. The teams defensive efficiency this year was the best of the Pitino era (holy shit he's been here 4 years already), and by a considerable margin. Yes, it helps to have a monster of a shot blocker all of a sudden, but he's only on the court like 18 minutes a game or something I didn't look up. The three point defense has been great, both defending and forcing teams off that shot, and the two point defense is the best in the last four years, and the assist percentage allowed his the lowest as well, suggesting the Gophers are forcing teams to shoot long 2s off of little ball movement - that's good! I'm not sure exactly how much that's happening, but I know the pick and roll defense has improved tremendously since the beginning of the year (as long as the point guard's name doesn't rhyme with Thimble). Great job by the team, the coach, the new guys, and all. This team definitely wins with defense.
Which is good, because the best thing you can say about the offense is that it is better than last year when it was abysmal. The good news is that it is better than all the Tubby years except one, so if you think it looks better it does - it's just the second worse Pitino year. That said, the improvement from last year is remarkable. This year seven players (Mason, Murphy, Coffey, McBrayer, Springs, Lynch, and Curry) had an offensive rating over 100 (kenpom). Last season that number was just three (Mason, King, Buggs). Basically every offensive metric around has the team better this year than last year, but still meh. One metric stands out to me though - assist %.
This year the team assists on 57% of their baskets, good enough for 66th in the country. That number has always been high - under Pitino, under Tubby, even under Monson they were usually top 100. Last season, however, they assisted on just 52% of made baskets, ranking them 167 - their worst mark since kenpom came into existence. I know a 5% change may not seem like much, but it is. The second worst Gopher ranking came under Jim Molinari. It doesn't necessarily mean an unselfish team, although this one is, but it means the ball is moving, the offense is humming, and there's a solid plan in place. That seems to be the biggest difference offensively this year compared to last. The players know what to do at all times (maybe not having Buggs helps here?). Pick and roll has gotten better, they're running some creative sets, and the team is looking to run whenever it can. Good stuff.
But enough about the Gophers. Nobody cares. Let's talk about their opponent tomorrow, the 12th seeded Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders. Hey did you know they beat Michigan State last year as a 15 seed? I had no idea, nobody mentions it constantly on TV or anything. Did you also know they got blown out by 25 the next game against Syracuse? Did you also know they only have two of their top five scorers back? Now, I know one of them is Giddy Potts, and admittedly that's fun to say, and they went 30-4 this year which is really good, but come on now.
I know they're a good team. They have wins over UNC-Wilmington, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss this year. And only losing four times is always good, but those losses were to three bad teams and VCU. They haven't played a team as good as the Gophers the entire season and have only played one Top 100 team since Christmas. Their biggest strengths are they don't turn the ball over and they don't get their shot blocked. Let's see what happens when they play a pressure defense from the Big Ten and face Reggie Lynch. And, oh yeah, they don't draw fouls even against that level of competition - Lynch might have 15 blocked shots. I get it. They're a good team who deserve to be here. But so are the Gophers. The line opened with the Gophers a 3 point favorite, now they're a one point underdog with something like 94% of the money on MTSU, and everyone I see on TV, everyone, is picking the Blue Raiders. That always works out, right?
Minnesota 74, MTSU 60.