Checking in on Gopher Basketball As Big Ten Season Begins

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

The first season under Richard Pitino has been relatively quiet thus far.  No major events have occurred over the first few months, the football team has sort of dominated the Gopher sporting landscape and the team is off to an 11-2 record as we head into the Big Ten season.  The competitive loss to Syracuse gave us some signs that this team can compete, the loss to Arkansas was a minor setback that was probably offset by the minor upset of Florida State a week later.  Other than that we have beat the teams we were supposed to beat and lost to Syracuse, which surprised no one.

But this has been a relatively weak schedule and now we get to see how this team competes in the best basketball conference in the country.  I'll give my thoughts on a handful of areas (positive and areas of concern) and then I'll give some thoughts on the Big Ten and where we'll eventually stand.

REBOUNDING

This was probably my biggest concern heading into the season and in some ways I feel better about this and in others I am maybe more concerned than I was before.  Our overall rebounding numbers are really not that bad.  We are 5th in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (+4.2), we rank 3rd in the B1G in offensive rebounding % (rebounding 36.4% of our own misses) and we rank 8th in defensive rebounding % (nabbing 70.6% of opponent misses).  Those numbers are not that bad.  We are not dominant on the glass like we were a year ago but we didn't fall to the bottom of the conference after losing interior, rebounding forces like Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.

This sustained production really comes from rebounding turning into a total team effort.   Elliott Eliason is 4th in the league in rebounding and Austin Hollins (who does EVERYTHING) is 7th.  Overall, not that bad.  But what continues to concern me is the lack of rebounding production (and scoring for that matter) out of the PF spot.

Our power forwards combine to account for just 17.3% of our offensive rebounds (D1 average is 28.4), this ranks 339th nationally (out of 351 teams).  Defensively they account for just 18.3% of our rebounds compared to a D1 average of 24.1% and this ranks 324th nationally.  We are getting very good production out of our C and SF spots (both ranking in the top 85 offensively and defensively), but the lack of support from PF is concerning to me.  Those are not encouraging numbers that have largely come against rather weak competition.

Rebounding as a whole, as I've said, has been adequate and not a huge concern.  But the combination of Oto Osenieks and Joey King at PF has not produced, especially in the rebounding department.

WINNING POSSESSION BATTLE THROUGH TURNOVERS

Turnovers will likely be a, if not THE, determining factor in most of our games this year.  Look at two games against quality competition this year.

Off TO% Def TO% Result
Syracuse 29.2% 15.4% Loss
Florida State 9.4% 26.6% Win

Winning the turnover battle is crucial for this team.  We are not usually going to gain a possession advantage through rebounding, best case is to hope that this remains neutral.  And most games in the Big Ten I do not expect that we will have a significant shooting % advantage, other than on those occasional nights when things are just falling.  Which means we have to have a possession advantage and it will have to come through turnovers.

The only other BCS conference opponent was Arkansas.  In that game turnovers were relatively equal there was no significant rebounding advantage (both with 9 offensive rebounds).  So how did the Razorbacks win by 14 points when both teams attempted basically the same amount of FGs and FTs?  They out-shot us with their eFG% for the game was almost 62% compared to our 52%.  Look back at the Syracuse game again where we were dominated in the turnover game.  That game was close because we out-shot the Orange.  This wasn't enough against such a good team but minimize turnovers and that game might have been an early signature win.

Most nights, we need a possession advantage and it is usually going to have to come through turnovers.  Not giving up the ball and generating a lot defensively.  If this does not happen we will have to out-shoot teams.

Now, turnovers appear to have been OK for most of the season.  We are only turning it over 16.3% of the time which ranks 67th nationally.  Defensively we force turnovers 20.9% of the time (52nd nationally).  Those are solid numbers, but again this has largely been against pretty weak competition.  We will face better defenses than Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Nebraska-Omaha.

I believe that this Gopher team can score in bunches, but they can also give it up in bunches.  Mitigating turnovers is key to winning the possession battle.

NEW ROTATION and GUYS

(now to fewer stats and more observations)

If you think about it there are really quite a few new guys in the rotation this year, somewhat surprising when you basically only lost 2 guys.  But Deandre Mathieu, Malik Smith and Joey King are three of your top 7 minutes eaters.  Add that to the more than doubling of Osenieks' minutes and a brand new coach with a brand new system and this is all going to take some getting used to.

I believe that with each passing game these guys are getting more and more used to each other and used to their new roles in this new system.  The weaker non-conference schedule and the confidence building win over Florida State is exactly what this team needed in the first couple months.  Now the buzz-saw part of the season gets going and you go from ranked team to ranked team and you only get a couple days to recover and prepare.

THE CORE-FOUR

Through the first 13 games I think we have established the core-four guys that we will be leaning on throughout the season.

Austin Hollins does everything for this team.  Leads the team in minutes, 2nd in points, 2nd in rebounding, 3rd in assists, 2nd in steals.  His leadership and steadiness cannot be underestimated.  He isn't the emotional leader or our best scorer but he might be our most valuable player.

Andre Hollins is obviously the emotional leader and is the one guy who can carry this team to a win.  16.2 ppg while also giving the team 3 assists and 4 rebounds per game.

Elliott Eliason is also an underappreciated commodity for this team.  Rebounding was a concern and all he has done is come down with 8.2 boards per game.  The junior has three double-doubles this year and when he gets into foul trouble things become concerning in the paint.

Deandre Mathieu is the final of the core-four and his minutes are point are huge as they allow Andre to play at SG and the team still has an offensive threat at point.  His quickness to the paint and quick hands have been beneficial on both ends of the floor.

After those four guys you have a number who are capable of giving big contributions but their minutes are fewer and you cannot rely on these contributions until more consistency shows.  Malik Smith may give this team a few big scoring nights and Joey King is capable of a 15-20 point night.  But the core-four is where we'll live and die this year in the Big Ten.  Three of them have been through the Big Ten schedule a few times and know not only what to expect but how to handle it.  Our season rides on these guys.

THE BIG TEN

This league is very good, which should surprise no one.  Three teams in the top 5, with Iowa ranked and then Michigan and Illinois also receiving votes.  And that doesn't include Indiana, who will likely be at or near the top of the Big Ten heap by the end of the season.  That is seven teams mentioned as nationally relevant teams.  So where will the Gophers fit into that picture?  Not going to venture a guess at this point.

A quick start is going to be imperative.  Michigan and Purdue at home to start the new year followed by a trip to Penn State.  Winning all three of those is not impossible and would be a huge confidence boost for this team.  From there you still get 5 games against Michigan St./Wisconsin/Ohio St. so getting a few wins to start the year would be nice.

We are not as athletic as many of the Big Ten teams.  We might struggle generating turnovers against many of the teams in the upper-half of the league.  And there will be times when our interior is just not going to be good enough to stop some teams.  But I don't think we are so void of talent that we can't win some games, just pointing out that we have flaws and I'm not expecting a .500 Big Ten season.

I actually like this Gopher squad and enjoy watching them play, I'll enjoy watching them improve throughout the year and it will be interesting to see how they look in March.  I think this is a mentally tough group and I think this is a team that is only going to get better as the season goes on.  Getting a nice jump on the Big Ten season with a few wins might make this an interesting season.  Getting in a hole early will likely be too tough to overcome if they want to earn another NCAA Tournament bid.

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