By now you know that the Gophers have begun the Big Ten season by losing at home to Michigan and then following that up with a win over Purdue. Both were highly entertaining games that I think can tell us quite a bit about this year's club.
Minn - 60
Mich - 63
This was a really fun game to watch and the Gophers played well for much of the game. What I loved most about this game was the Gopher game-plan and how they executed it. They have been doing this throughout the year and I imagine as we go through the Big Ten season it will become more evident. Coach Pitino is putting together an offensive gameplan that attacks what he feels is the opponent's weakness and we are doing this all within the context of the current offense. We are not implementing new plays or doing things that we are not very good at, we are staying within the offense and attacking.
For the Michigan game we were allowing the quicker Deandre Mathieu to penetrate deep into the lane where he would either challenge whatever bigger defender came up or he would drop it off to a big man of our own for an easy two. We ended up scoring 32 points in the paint and these were mostly due to penetration or offensive put-backs.
This game-plan was excellent for a couple reasons. First of all, Michigan is playing without their starting big-man, Mitch McGary leaving them vulnerable and thin inside. This is like Drew Brees consistently throwing on the third string, rookie CB who just came into the game after the starter got injured. Secondly, Matheiu was quick enough to get by any of the Michigan guards and get into the heart of the Wolverine defense. Now Michigan has been very good this season at not fouling and not allowing their opponent to get to the line very often. Prior to the Gopher game they have made more as a team than their opponents had attempted. Entering the game they were allowing about 13.5 free throw attempts per game. The Gopher's attacking game-plan got them to the line 19 times.
So what went wrong? Michigan's freshman, Zak Irvin, got a lot of minutes and made 5 of his 8 three-point attempts. In fact the Wolverines shot 41% from three to our 26%. We won the possession battle and we had a plan with what we wanted to do with those possessions, but we were out-shot by a good shooting team.
Minn - 82
Pur - 79
This game was very different than the Michigan one. Coming into this game, based on the stats, it appeared as though we would be able to gather quite a few offensive rebounds which would be enough to gain a possession advantage. Like many of our games, I wasn't sure we could out-shoot Purdue so we needed turnovers and offensive boards.
Turns out turnovers were about even, Purdue got a ton of offensive boards and we out-shot the Boilermakers as we held on for the first Big Ten win of the season. Our 64.1% effective FG% was the highest of the season and nearly hit 50% of our threes. And we needed it as Purdue attempted 17 more field goals and had an additional free throw attempt.
Forward is still a huge issue for this team. Purdue made a huge run in the 2nd half to erase what was a 16-point lead down to a one-possession game. Part of this run was fueled by going smaller with essentially four guards and whoever we had at power forward was unable to defend. Malik Smith came to the rescue defensively but he also managed a couple of untimely quick shots that hurt us offensively. This position is an issue and it will be all year on both ends of the floor.
On the other hand, we are getting outstanding minutes from Elliott Eliason. The big guy doesn't look anything like he did a year or two ago. He is playing great interior defense, he is rebounding very well, he is a threat to score and he even runs the floor, catching the ball in transition and scoring. I was concerned about PF and C coming into the year. One is worse than I imagined and one is much improved.
Then of course we have the backcourt led by the two most critical players on the team. But I think you need to add Mathieu to this list of key players. This was an outstanding recruiting win for Pitino and staff. He gives us a true point guard who can get deep into the lane and score on big men as well as find other open scorers. This has been a tremendous help to the current squad and Mathieu gives us three viable scoring options on the perimeter along with Andre and Austin Hollins.
Back-to-back road games. The first is at Penn State in a game that I'd really like to see us win. The Nitany Lions are not particularly good defensively and not particularly strong in the interior. I know this is a road game, which you can never take for granted in the Big Ten, but this is a game that the Gophers need to win if they want to stay in the middle of the Big Ten pack and fight for an NCAA Tournament bid.
That game is followed by a trip to Michigan State where we haven't won since George H. Bush was president.