Following the Gophers strong showing during the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which included triumphs over North Carolina and West Virginia, some jubilant Minnesota fans began drawing comparisons between this version of maroon and gold and the Bobby Jackson and Sam Jacobsen led crew that took the Gophers to the Final Four.
In the weeks since claiming a non-conference tournament championship, the Gophers have struggled against teams they were expected to handle with ease. This stretch included the first ever non-conference home loss of the Tubby Smith era. That loss came at the hands of Virginia, a team that isn't exactly expected to tear up a down ACC. There was an all-too-close home win over a Cornell team that is vastly inferior when compared to last year's Cornell team. There was a relative struggle against Eastern Kentucky at home and St. Joseph's on the road. This latest stretch has some of the once jubilant fan base a bit concerned.
So, what exactly is ailing Minnesota since its celebration in Puerto Rico? Three issues are explored after the jump.
Minnesota's Size Has Been Exploited: During many telecasts you'll hear announcers talking about Minnesota's size. They'll comment about Maurice Walker's girth and the twin towers of Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson. And that trio, combined with a far more athletic Trevor Mbakwe, allows Minnesota to clog the paint on defense against many teams in the country. But since Puerto Rico, we've seen that size exploited to our opponents advantage. The relative slow-footedness of Walker, Sampson and Iverson has cost Minnesota on the defensive end. A number of teams have wisely pulled those three away from the basket and made them guard far more athletic bigs. At the same time, the Gophers haven't dominated the glass the way they should against smaller competition. St. Joes stayed in the game with 12 offensive rebounds. An undersized Virginia team out-rebounded the Gophers. The combination of poor interior defense and lack of rebounding is devastating for a team that should dominate in the paint.
Coach Smith has obviously noticed this issue and addressed it specifically when Walker and Iverson are on the floor together by playing an extended 2-3 zone. That's worked to hide their weakness in guarding faster big men. But rebounding out of a zone is far more difficult. Another solution might be playing smaller lineups at times, though that would forfeit what should be an advantage on the glass.
Reduced Offensive Production from the Bigs: Thanks to The Daily Gopher's crack research team (in other words, thanks to Gopher Nation), Minnesota's offensive production from Sampson, Mbakwe and Iverson has fallen off since Puerto Rico by 6.6 points per game. Through the WVU game, Mbakwe was scoring 14 points per game. Sampson was at 13.8 and Iverson as at 8. Since, Mbakwe has been at 13.6, Sampson at 10.6 and Iverson at 5.
Why the reduction? It's possible that it's just a small sample size. But there are other potential reasons. The bigs might miss Nolen's ability to penetrate and find an open big man after the defense has collapsed on him. Joseph is far more likely to create offense for himself and pull up for a mid-range jumper than he is to take the ball all the way to the rack to attract defenders. Have the Gophers dumped the ball down low less since Puerto Rico? Have the Gophers suffered from giving significant minutes to three freshman perimeter players? Have the permeter players tried to simply do too much to make up for Nolen's absence (specifically take shots early before ever entering the ball into the post). Or have defenses adjusted? Sampson certainly seems to be getting more double and triple teams, something he really struggles with because of his slow-developing post moves and relative inability to pass out of the post.
My guess? The bigs miss Nolen. Mbakwe, Sampson and Iverson, who all have strengths, aren't great with their back to the basket. Sampson's post moves are extremely deliberate and predictable. Mbakwe can use his athleticism and strength to get to the rim, but he doesn't exactly have a go-to post move. And Iverson shows glimpses, but can't find consistency in the post. All three of those bigs need a guard who can create offense for them. Without Nolen, the Gophers don't have a guard that is consistently getting into the lane to create scoring opportunities.
Minnesota is Really Struggling to Defend the 3: Coach Smith jokingly noted recently that fans were trying to tell him how to defend the 3 better. That's bound to be a topic of concern considering UVA shot a blistering 10-13 from 3 to knock the Gophers down to size. This should improve for the Gophers once Nolen returns. He is as advertised on the defensive end and is our shut-down perimeter defender. Consider that while Nolen has played this year, the Gophers, against better competition, have defended the three much better. Wofford was 3-16. Siena was 9-17. WKU was 10-29. UNC was 4-18 and WVU was 8-23.
But Minnesota's defensive tendencies have also played a role here. The Gophers tend to double or run at an offensive player with the ball in the post. Considering our length and size, the Gophers could shy away from that unless we're facing a dominant post player. And if Nolen is out an extended period of time, the Gophers are simply going to have to do a much better job rotating on defense to cover the 3.
Conclusion: The Gophers have issues. Some are related to Nolen's absence and others might not be. Thankfully, the Gophers have had time to see their weaknesses exposed during a relatively light non-conference portion of the schedule. They have time to adjust. Time to get healthy. And time will tell if we should be thinking about comparisons to 1997 or fretting over the recent sloppy play.