Maverick Ahanmisi during the first round of the 2011 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
This is going to be a long Big Ten season for Gopher basketball and it is not because of the loss of Trevor Mbakwe. I firmly believe that last season was truly completely when Al Nolen went down and there was no backcourt help because Devoe Joseph decided to transfer. But the problems we are seeing with this season's team has very little to do with the loss of our best player. There are some fundamental issues with this particular team that were cleverly hidden because the Gophers had a fringe All-American on their roster.
While this post will have some poignant critics of the current team that can largely be blamed on coaching, I am not a basher of the current head coach and am comfortable with Tubby right now. I know there is a growing sentiment that this program is stuck in mediocrity and it might soon be time for a coaching change. I am not yet in that company, but I do have some problems with what I am seeing on the floor. This post is going to seem rather contradictory because these are largely coaching issues but I'm not really "against" the coaching staff. So first I'll try to explain my position on the coaching staff before I voice my displeasure about our lack of execution.
I do believe that this is a difficult job. It is so very easy to sit back, point out mistakes and from the comfort of our couches, the water-cooler or blogosphere and then give the seemingly obvious solutions. It is so easy to make a statement like "in year four we should be seeing better results." Sure, but what exactly should be done differently. Vast improvement was made initially and taking that next step has been a major challenge. Tom Crean spent three years with awful Indiana teams before this breakout season where he happened to get a 5-star recruit to help.
It is also very easy to look around and say something like "Look at Coach Mid-Major and how he is having so much more success with fewer resources, why can't we get him?" But let's not forget about the long list of coaches who were successful at lower levels who have failed in a major conference. It isn't because those guys were great coaches one day and either quit trying or forgot everything they knew the next. This job is hard and it gets harder at the higher levels. And the step from mediocrity to very good (or great) might be the biggest hurdle to overcome.
But the reality is that coaches are not stupid, they know their team's weaknesses and work every day to hide those weaknesses and play to their strength. The entire coaching staff pours their lives into fixing mistakes, getting better and taking the program forward year after year. This is a difficult job and it is much more complex than just the simple fixes that we think are so obvious from our living rooms. Despite working on situations and execution it doesn't always mean you will see perfect execution when those situations present themselves.
Tubby does have this program stuck in mediocrity. Partially because of unfortunate circumstances (injuries and Royce White being a bonehead) and partially because of his own mistakes. But I do not necessarily believe that switching coaches is always the right answer to fixing the problem. There is nothing wrong with demanding more, there is nothing wrong with taking the kid gloves off because we no longer should feel lucky to have the infamous Tubby Smith and there is nothing wrong with holding him accountable by not granting him a massive extension just because he asks for it. But firing is not always the right answer. It is never as easy as Coach X was not getting it done so we'll bring in Coach W to take us to another level. For a program like Minnesota you are more likely to revert to consistently being a 9th or 10th place Big Ten team again. So my point, before I move on to my real point, is that this is not an easy job and while we are stuck in mediocrity I still believe there is a greater chance we break out of it (one of these years) with Tubby Smith than there is we take steps forward as a program by hiring a new coach. I probably could have skipped the previous 750 words and just given that one statement.
With all of that said, I am pretty unhappy with what I am seeing on the floor this year.
First of all I would really like somebody to explain to me why Maverick Ahanmisi has had the ball in his hands twice with the game on the line? I realize that at the time he was the point guard on the floor and I also recognize that we don't exactly have that go-to scorer who should be the one with the ball every single time. But we do have guys like Julian Welch who is a capable scorer and a guy like Andre Hollins who is a freshman but is our most explosive player. I would much rather take my chances with either of those guys, who can both play the point guard position, over a guy who is small, not a scorer and has never shown that he can finish with a basket in traffic.
At the end of regulation in the Illinois game, the game was tied after Meyer's Leonard made knocked down a pair of free throws. The ball is inbound to Mav who takes it the length of the floor and his miss sent the game into OT. Then again at the end of regulation in the Iowa game, this time down two points, Mav gets the ball in his hands following two missed free throws. He again takes the ball the full length of the floor and misses a floating, lay-up three feet from the rim that was not close.
I know that point guard is not a strength of the Gophers and Mav has emerged as Tubby's favorite. He has a solid assist rate and his turnovers have at least not been any worse than the other PG candidates. He has proven to Tubby that he is the most trustworthy of the potential points, despite the fact that he offers very little in terms of offensive production or defensive pressure. But if he doesn't recognize that there are 4 or 5 (or 6) perimeter players who stand a better chance of getting to the rim and converting a basket in traffic or getting to the free throw line, then somebody needs to tell him that he should be the 4th or 5th (or 6th) option at end of game situations. If he gets the ball on the inbound or following a rebound then he needs to outlet the ball to someone who can get to the rim and finish. Welch, Rodney, Andre Chip and even Austin should be taking these final shots before Mav. Having it happen once can be forgiven as a mistake, but twice is unacceptable. On a team with a handful of guards who struggle to finish in traffic, he generally has been the most timid around the rim. Personally I'd like to see Andre Hollins with the ball in those situations or an outlet pass up to Rodney and let him get go cause he will get to the rim with authority. I could go on, but you get the point. Anybody but Mav in those situations. I'm OK with Mav starting at the point and while I'm not a huge fan of his I recognize he does some things well. But this is not a strength of his.
Secondly, we still stink at offensive execution and are worse at making adjustments. This is all coaching. To be honest I am fairly comfortable with the execution of our offense. What bothers me most is our inability to execute a set play to get an occasional open three or isolation for someone in the post. And end of clock situations are brutal, far too many times we have seen rushed threes from very deep because we were unable to execute a set play for a relatively open look. These plays should have options so if the defense takes the 1st option away then we have a secondary option. But typically we take the last option which is throw something up that will hopefully hit the rim before the shot clock goes off.
Then if we do happen to get into an offensive rhythm and the defense changes things up we need several minutes to adjust. Maybe it is that we cannot adjust or maybe it is just that we cannot execute a zone offense, that I'm not sure of yet because a team has yet to start the game in a zone (that I can recall). This from Ralph following the Iowa loss,
"The whole game kind of switched when they did that," he said. "It was a different pace to the game."
Sure it was a different pace, but there are ways to attack a zone defense. If I were coaching against the Gophers I would play zone because as I recall every time an opponent employs this crazy defensive tactic we become incapable of scoring.
Lastly, I am absolutely baffled by how poorly this team defends ball screens. To be honest I think our man-to-man defense has been much better this year in regards to getting to shooters and slowing penetration. We are not great at either of these things but we are better than what we saw last season. But we get absolutely killed by ball screens. The Michigan loss was a perfect example of how we actually defended a very good shooting team quite well. Michigan shot just 6-20 from behind the three point line. But then Coach Beilein cheated and he made an offensive adjustment. Michigan started running point guard, Trey Burke off a high ball screen and then let him pick apart the Gopher defense. We had no answer.
Burke capitalized on fewer bodies in the paint because of players not helping off Smotrycz and Hardaway. It created openings down low for passes and plays while also helping him take some midrange jump shots.
"We really wanted to get out on their 3s," Williams said. "But we couldn’t stop Burke from the pick and roll. … That was all him getting to the rack and the free throw line."
As a former coach, the first thing we would teach kids about defending a ball screen is to know where you are on the floor. If you are 2 steps (or more) beyond the three-point line then you always drop under the screen while the guy guarding the screener stays tight to the screen making the ball-handler go a little wider around. This is pretty simple and always the right move when you are 24 feet from the rim. Unfortunately on very high screens we are trying to fight over the top rather than making it easy on ourselves when the offense isn't disciplined enough to set their screens lower.
If the screen is tighter to the line then you have a decision to make. You can choose to go under the screen still, but then you are vulnerable to the ball-handler getting an open three. You can choose to double the ball leaving your defense with three guys to guard four and the screener rolling to the basket. You can switch the screen creating mismatches that are generally not in your favor. Or the defender can try to fight over the top of the screen while the guy defending the screener cuts off the easy line of penetration then quickly getting back to the rolling screener. All of these have their advantages and disadvantages. How we currently defend the ball screen is the guy guarding the ball runs right into the screen and the guy guarding the screener either tries to guard the ball or he stands in no-man's land not guarding either one of the guys. This leads to open jump shots, screeners getting the ball in the lane after he rolls or easy penetration to the rim for the guy with the ball. Maybe we are trying to confuse the offense with too many scoring options. Even during those rare possessions that we defend the screen well and we are able to contain the guy with the ball then the guy guarding the screener often loses his man and doesn't recover in time.
Ball screens are not easy to defend, this is why it is such a widely used offensive weapon in the NBA. But we often do not appear to have players on the same page. There needs to be more pressure on offense and more urgency to recover quickly. I understand it is not an easy thing to defend but we really (REALLY) struggle with this.
All three of these issues are correctable issues but not usually things that will dramatically change in January or February. Maybe it can be made more clear who should have the ball in end of game situations. That is probably a quick fix but that is also the least of our problems. The execution of a zone offense or set-play situations is going to be a struggle for this unit largely because they are lacking a dynamic or go-to scorer. But they can do a better job of working off of each other and perfecting execution. Defensively this ball-screen thing has GOT to be fixed because it is pretty bad and teams will pound us with it until we figure out a way to stop it.
I fear that this is going to be a long season of games where we are competitive but repeatedly come up short because we are unable to execute down the stretch and because we make things too easy on opposing offenses when it matters most. Unfortunately by this point of the season what you see is usually what you are going to get.