Here’s What to Make of U Basketball
The University of Minnesota men’s basketball season hasn’t crashed but the last couple of weeks haven’t been much fun either. Minnesota, undefeated and ranked No. 12 in the country in late November, has lost three of its last five games and at times looked awful.
The now 9-3 Gophers weren’t even that impressive in their most recent win, a 68-67 home victory earlier this week against mediocre and undersized Drake. Oh, how things can change in a hurry.
Did college basketball authority Seth Davis really mention Minnesota as a potential Final Four team? Guess he and others got caught up in the November and even earlier optimism about the Gophers who returned all five starters from last winter’s NCAA Tournament team that had a surprising 11-7 Big Ten record and fourth place finish in the standings. An impressive season for the players and Richard Pitino who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Yup, it was easy to hype a team that last offseason had a No. 10 national ranking by Sporting News. Back in October media covering the Big Ten voted Minnesota forward Amir Coffey and guard Nate Mason first team preseason All-Big Ten. It was also easy to believe that by the end of the conference season center Reggie Lynch would be a repeat winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award, and that guard Isaiah Washington would be included on the All-Freshman team.
That’s the kind of stuff that made long-suffering Gopher fans rush to the box office last offseason. And when the team ran off seven consecutive season-opening wins and junior forward Jordan Murphy started reeling off one double-double after another, Minnesota fans were absolutely giddy.
When No. 10 ranked Miami came to town November 29 the Hurricanes were undefeated like the Gophers. Williams Arena was sold out and the crowd of 14,625 was raucous. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when Williams Arena hosted the best show in town and one of the top attractions in college basketball.
Minnesota played well, but the Hurricanes better in their 86-81 win. The Gophers played without injured starting guard Dupree McBrayer. His absence was telling, with teammates, particularly Washington, mishandling the ball too many times. Miami scored 17 points on turnovers, Minnesota two. The Gophers had just 12 assists in the game, only three in the first half.
McBrayer returned for the next game, a lethargic opening Big Ten win over lowly Rutgers at Williams Arena. The Gophers’ collective energy was probably even worse when two nights later they went to Nebraska and lost to the just okay Cornhuskers in a second conference game.
Then before last Saturday night’s SEC Network televised game at Arkansas a Gopher social media booster suggested U officials should be arranging a viewing party for the many fans without access to that network. The way the Gophers played it wasn’t even worth listening to on the radio.
The Razorbacks won easily, 95-79. They controlled the game from the beginning when Arkansas players were making easy baskets by hustling down the court faster than the Gophers. Lynch had two fouls in the opening minutes of the game and sat until halftime. At the beginning of the second half he committed a third foul. It was that kind of night.
Minnesota struggled to make shots in the first half against Drake and the Bulldogs led at halftime by four points. The Gophers rallied in the second half led by Coffey who had 16 points after scoring none in the opening 20 minutes. The one point win was indicative of how close the 5-5 Bulldogs—whose losses include a 93-65 beat down by South Dakota—came to pulling off a major upset.
So what has happened to the Gophers? What’s going on with a team that once looked so confident and efficient but now is left out of the top 25 national rankings and struggles with an opponent like the Missouri Valley Conference’s Drake Bulldogs?
Well, lots of things factor in. The schedule became more difficult in late November and December. While the Gophers had an impressive mid-November win at Providence and a neutral court victory over top 25 ranked Alabama, they hadn’t played a four-game stretch like Miami, Rutgers, Nebraska and Arkansas.
In those games it’s been more evident than ever how unproductive the Gophers’ bench has been scoring a total of 31 points. Add the Drake game into the total and the figure is 35 points, or an average of seven per game in the last five games.
Minnesota is 12 games into the 2017-2018 season and still trying to recover from the absences of guard Akeem Springs and power forward Eric Curry. Both subs were major contributors to last season’s success. Springs used up his eligibility and an offseason knee injury has Curry sidelined for the winter. Springs was often instant offense with his long-range shooting, while Curry provided inside scoring and made other contributions including rebounds and hustle plays.
Also, without going too much into the subtleties of basketball, let’s just say opponents have made adjustments to the Gophers. Lynch, for example, can be a ball-blocking machine near the basket but opponents will make him move away from the hoop to guard another center (perhaps positioned near the free throw line). Murphy is now facing double and triple teams. He can bull his way through gangs of lightweight defenders but when he faces the big boys on top teams he should adjust by passing more to open teammates.
In recent games the Gophers haven’t been moving the ball like they did when things were rolling. In the first half against Miami the Gophers had three assists. In the Arkansas loss Minnesota had 10 assists, the Razorbacks 23.
It’s not just ball movement either. Lynch can’t routinely be in early foul trouble. Minnesota also can’t be letting opposing players get down the floor for easy baskets. There has to be more consistent energy and focus, which can lead to steals and layups for the Gophers.
The Gophers don’t play again until December 21 against Oral Roberts. That’s the first of three winnable nonconference games at Williams Arena that takes them through the end of December. Then comes a return to Big Ten play on January 3 against Illinois at Williams Arena.
What can the Gophers, including not just the players but the coaches, do to get their stride back? First, don’t panic, don’t lose confidence and enjoy playing basketball.
Minnesota has a talented and experienced starting five. The front line of Lynch, Murphy and Coffey is one of the better units in college basketball. Mason, along with Lynch is one of two senior starters. Mason was all-Big Ten last season and will continue to make big plays for the Gophers. McBrayer, at the other guard, has to improve his shooting (10 of 33 in the last four games) but at 6-5 the junior is the only guard with length on the roster.
Coffey, a sophomore, is the most unselfish of the starters and probably should be handling the ball more. The Gophers could benefit by running their offense with him in charge. He will find open teammates and he also excels at slashing to the basket. With Coffey more as a playmaker and ball handler, it will free up point guard Mason, the team’s best long-range shooter, to come off screens.
What to do about the bench? A couple things.
If the starters (particularly Lynch and Murphy) have fewer fouls, than sometimes that will limit the need for subs. It’s a bit of a head scratcher why Pitino has used almost no zone defense to protect his foul-prone big men. With Lynch, Murphy, Coffey and McBrayer, the Gophers have a lot of length that can make a zone defense effective and minimize foul troubles.
There apparently isn’t much help to be found on the bench, and the only sub with big potential is Washington. He can become an ignitor off the bench, lending spark with his playmaking and ability to drive and score near the basket. It looks so far like he isn’t playing enough consecutive minutes to get into a rhythm. Maybe the coaches are trying to discipline him from freshman mistakes but he will be a key to whether this team earns a high finish in the conference standings and wins a couple of NCAA Tournament games.
Washington could not only help the starters but even lead four other subs playing briefly together. Make the bench guys a “go-to-unit” that plays together a couple of minutes around the TV timeouts before returning all five starters to the floor.
Right now a team that was supposed to take the next step after last season isn’t the equal of the 2016-2017 edition. But in a 30-plus game schedule teams go through highs and lows, and there’s minimal doubt the Gophers will recover and play better.
A former Gophers player who remains knowledgeable about the program sees the Big Ten as weak. He’s been raving for months that Minnesota could challenge for the championship. Even now he thinks Minnesota can finish second in the league standings to national title contender Michigan State.
He insists the Gophers need to make adjustments and improvements but he’s still on the bandwagon. His attitude provides a little pre-Christmas cheer.