Without Press, Gophers Merely Average

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By Mike Gallagher

Losing three out of the last four games isn’t exactly what Tubby Smith had in mind after starting the conference season with back to back wins, but as we’re quickly discovering, the Gophers may not be what our minds told us.

After a loss at Purdue and a win over Ohio State, it looked like the Gophers were playing strong enough to compete with the best teams in the conference.

They did that against Michigan State, staying in the game the whole way and making it close at the end.

But after Minnesota followed that up with a disappointing defeat on the road Sunday at Big Ten bottom-feeder Indiana, a few things are becoming very clear about this team.

Firstly, at the core of the issue, the Gophers lack what every legitimate team needs; pure, natural, basketball talent.

It may sound elementary, but that has and will be, for the rest of the season at least, one of the main issues haunting the Gophers.

Specifically in the Indiana tilt, you saw the lack of playmakers once again rear it’s ugly head.  Once again, Blake Hoffarber did not show up.  Expect this to be a recurring theme, because Hoffarber is not a guy that will succeed on his own, he needs the presence of creative guards and an inside game to free him up.  Since the Gophers have neither creative guards, nor an inside game, Hoffarber’s scoring will continue to drop and he will soon find himself at fourth or fifth on the Gophers in that category.

After the game Sunday, Tubby Smith once again illustrated my first point by calling his starting backcourt “ineffective”.  Al Nolen and Lawrence Westbrook are not getting the job done right now on the offensive end, and were both out of the game at key times during the second half.  Westbrook barely saw the floor at all in the last 20 minutes + overtime, and when your leading scorer is not reliable when you need a basket, you will find yourself coming up empty when you need it most.

Devoe Joseph was great in this game, but he ran out of steam at the end, missing the last two shots the Gophers needed to go down in OT.  Joseph should’ve never been in that situation, but he was the only scoring threat on the floor in the waning minutes for the Gophers.

It doesn’t help matters that the Gophers are clearly feeling the effects of losing Royce White and Trevor Mbakwe at the forward position, both offensively gifted playmakers that could really ease the burden of scoring that the Gophers three starting guards are feeling.  They could create an inside presence that would open the floor for Haffarber and Westbrook’s shooting, and Al Nolen’s ability to get inside.  Because of their situations, the Gophers have lost their top two recruits, something any team would struggle to get past.

Ralph Sampson eased the post pains left by Mbakwe and White for the Gophers on the offensive end, racking up 17 points against Indiana, but forgot to do anything else, as the Hoosiers 40-29 rebound advantage suggests.

Hoffarber being the second leading scorer on a team that expects to contend is honestly all the evidence you need that the Gophers are hurting for options.  Your #2 scorer going 4-12 over the past two games is something that can’t happen if you want to win, and it is clearly crippling the offense having to rely on him so much to make a difference.

No one else is stepping up, though, so Hoffarber needs to find a way to have strong showings, even when he’s not open at the three point line.  On this team, he can’t just be a spot up shooting role player.  The problem is, anything but that is beyond his means.

Since the Gophers don’t have a plethora of scorers, they have gotten aggressive on the defensive end, pressing teams and forcing them into mistakes which lead to easy buckets.

There is a big problem with this, however, in the fact that Tubby Smith doesn’t feel the need to press on the road, claiming it will be less effective.

This has led to the Gophers having to rely on their half court offense much more than it had to at the beginning of the Big Ten season, with obviously disappointing results.

If Tubby Smith refuses to press, such as he did against Michigan State and Indiana, this trend of struggling offense will continue.  Announcers in the Michigan State game commented on the fact that they have never seen the shot clock wind down to inside ten seconds so often in a game.  Believe me guys, that wasn’t by design.  No pressing means lots of forced shots, lots of standing around and lots of ineffectiveness on the offensive end.

The struggles don’t stop on the offensive side, the Gophers half court defense isn’t coming close to blowing teams away right now.  While it is an opportunistic team, too many times have Gophers opponents found themselves with wide open 15 footers (JaJuan Johnson for Purdue), or easy shots at the bucket (Tom Pritchard and Christian Wattford for Indiana) when the Gophers are forced to play half court defense.

The Big Ten’s best D in the turnovers category has dropped off significantly the last two games.  Having forced only eight turnovers against Michigan State and 13 against Indiana, both well under their season average, Smith is going to have to start considering enforcing the press on the road as well.

In ten undefeated home games, the Gophers are forcing nearly 19 turnovers/gm, largely due to the press.  In eight games away from Williams Arena, they are averaging nearly four less than that a game.

Without weapons on the offensive end or a solid scheme defensively on the road, the Gophers are now finding themselves up against a wall.

Losing to Indiana, a struggling opponent that has already lost their best player, Maurice Creek, for the rest of the season is crippling to their tournament hopes.  They are now forced into a must win situation against at least two of the three remaining ranked teams on their schedule to make up for this unexpected loss.

The first of those three comes this Saturday, when the Gophers will have their first home game against a ranked opponent.  Has the Gophers fantastic home record simply been a mirage because of their soft non-conference schedule, or will they use the press effectively and stifle Michigan State’s balanced scoring attack?

If it turns out to be the former, we’ll know a lot more about this team than we may want to.  Perhaps only subpar teams are the ones that struggle against the Minnesota press.  The Gophers haven’t used it effectively on a top flight opponent as of yet, and with the squad expected to try and force Kalin Lucas and company to fight for every inch they get on the court, we’ll know for sure Saturday.

If it turns out to be the latter, the Gophers will need to find a way to do it more effectively on the road.  Use the blueprint from the Iowa game, where the Gophers forced 24 turnovers and ran over the Hawkeyes.  If they can do that on the road, this team is completely different and much more dangerous down the stretch.

Perhaps, like the Minnesota Vikings, the Gophers will end up being a great home team and average away team.  But to get to the tournament, that’s the kind of stuff that puts a nail in the coffin of your March Madness dreams.

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Comments

  1. i was hoping you’d reference the vikings, as i was thinking about the same thing while i was reading your article, mike… i’ll be watching tomorrow, on tv, cheering on the hapless gophers, hoping for some hometown magic… then sunday the vikes looking for some away magic in new orleans… voodoo?

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