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Minnesota Basketball: Breaking Down Gophers Loss to Illinois

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

(editors note: I was inspired by OTE's Coaches Corner piece done earlier this week.  So I did what all good bloggers do, I stole their idea.  Fortunately last night's game gave me plenty of opportunities for things to break down)

Last night's home loss to the last place team in the Big Ten was a huge blow to the Gophers and their chance at an NCAA Tournament bid.  We can talk about the impact of this loss on their season later, but for now I'd like to take a look at just what happened?  How were the Illini able to force the Gopher offense into their worst game of the year?  And defensively how did we allow Illinois to display what was probably their best offense game against Big Ten competition?

First a look at some numbers.  This was easily our worst offensive game of the year.  We have had exactly four games where our offensive efficiency was less than a point per possession.

Offensive Efficiency
Illinois 0.866
@ Northwestern 0.922
@ Penn State 0.965
Ohio State 0.999

You may notice that the other three games all resulted in wins, largely because our defense was also pretty good and because our offense wasn't dreadful.  But last night's 0.866 point per possession is dreadful.  Take a look at our effective FG%, it is just as bad...

Illinois 41.2
Michigan 44.3
@ Penn State 45.1
@ Purdue 45.6

So we can all agree that last night was bad, but it didn't start that way.  Minnesota jumped out to a quick 14-3 lead.  How did they score so well early?  A combination of bad offense by Illinois that lead to transition buckets and solid execution offensively.

Early on I remember thinking, "this Illini team is terrible offensively."  And they did things like the video clip below.  This poor pass, maybe a poor decision, directly lead to an Austin Hollins dunk on the other end.

Good job by the Gophers to get the ball up the floor and take advantage of what Illinois was giving here.  We also did a nice job of getting some open shots through offensive set plays.  This one below was a screen for Andre Hollins to get an open look at a three (which made).  We ran this play a few times, it was one of the few plays we ran that did not involve a ball-screen.  Early on it was successful which should have set up additional options off this play.

This play is pretty simple really.  Your PF and C start at high post, your wings start wide.  The wings cut across the lane, getting a screen from the opposite big man and if their defender gets caught in the screen they should be open for a three.  If the big's defender steps out to help, then the PG should find the big man in the lane.

In this case, Andre Hollins was wide open and he knocked down the three.  You can see that baseline penetration was also wide open and Hollins would have had the option of taking it all the way or finding Joey King should both defenders step to stop Hollins.

The actual play...

This is when our offense was effective.  Notice there is no use of ball-screens here, unfortunately ball screens on both ends of the floor became a common theme on virtually every possession.

For Minnesota, ball-screens are important because they help to get Deandre Mathieu loose to attack the lane where he often finds acrobatic ways to score, dumps it off to an open big man or finds a shooter on the backside.  Many games we dominate points in the paint and it isn't because we pound the ball into our bigs, it is because we get deep penetration and then find ways to score from there.  Tonight we struggled mightily to get into the paint, we struggled to get any action towards the basket from ball-screens and the Illini defense had us off balance for about 30 minutes of game time.

Here is what happened.  Illinois was prepared for Mathieu, or whoever was playing point (in the video below it was McNeil but we had similar results with Mathieu in the game).  When there was a high ball-screen set the ball-screen defender would jump out hard forcing our point to take a wide arc away from the lane.  Effectively this was pushing us further from the play and taking us out of any offense we were trying to generate from the ball-screen.  In our case, Mathieu is also on the smaller side so when an athletic big-man was jumping out to guard him he was then unable to see the entire floor and if someone was open in the lane or on the backside he was unable to see it.  You can see in the diagrammed play below just how we were pushed out, away from the basket.

In the example above, this was a stagger screen with both our 4 and our 5.  Typically we were using only one big on our high ball-screens but the concept and results were the same.  You can really see below how the Illini defense took us completely out of our offense and 10 seconds of shot-clock were wasted as we had to reset the offense with 24 seconds left.

There are things you can do offensively to adjust for this aggressive defense and there are a few examples of this by the Gophers, but for the most part they continued to run the high ball-screen while achieving very little success with it.

The possession below has three things worth pointing out.  First is that if you know the screener's defender is going to jump you and your man is trying to fight through the screen, you forgo the screen and take the ball the other way.  Mathieu tries this on the possession below, it just didn't turn into a scoring opportunity here.

Secondly, the screener can abandon the screen and slip towards the basket.  You'll notice Eliason trying this on the second ball-screen attempt on this possession.

And lastly, what I really appreciated on this possession was how the Gophers ended up getting the ball to Mathieu on the wing, without a ball-screen and plenty of room to get into the lane.

Really those are a lot of words, a few video clips and play diagramming to illustrate how important Deandre Mathieu is to this team.  He needs room to get into the lane because when he isn't turning it over he makes this this offense go.  The Gophers struggled to get him in position to do what he does best and that was largely because of the Illini's athleticism and defense.

This wasn't the first time an opponent has used this to slow down Mathieu.  Nebraska did the same thing with similar success in stalling our offense and forcing turnovers.

The Illini took a page from Nebraska's playbook and trapped Mathieu up top on ball screens. The Cornhuskers forced nine turnovers with that trick on Jan. 26. On Tuesday, it wasn't so much turnovers that hurt the Gophers but a complete inability to get into their offense in the half-court.

"We were slipping him," said head coach Rich Pitino, explaining that centers Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason were slipping out of the screens early to create space for an entry pass. "(Mathieu) was passive versus it. I think he was getting frustrated with it, certainly. We kept slipping it and telling him to attack.

"They did a good job on him," he added. "They've got to learn from it certainly because I'm sure other teams are going to continue to do it."

Mathieu said the ball-screen trap wasn't a look he'd seen from Illinois in film study, but he noted that Pitino warned him it was a ploy they might use to try to contain him.

"I've struggled with that," Mathieu said. "Every game that I've been trapped on ball screens I've struggled, so I've got to get back in the gym and work on that."

More film for opponents to see and now an opportunity for the Gopher offense to beat teams who employ this defense.

Illinois actually utilized ball-screens frequently as well.  They achieved more success and it was primarily because of how we chose to defend the ball-screen.  We were more passive with our help from the screener's defender.  This allowed the Illini point to get himself a step or two inside the three-point line.  This defense relies on help-side defense from everyone else to keep guys from penetrating deep into the lane, there are no double-teams so there should be no easy baskets given up.  What it did, however, is allow Illinois to get into an attacking position where they had very little ball-pressure and they were able to scan the floor to find an opening.

The play I've diagrammed below is very simplistic and is there just to illustrate the difference between how we defended ball-screens and how Illinois defended them.  They were able to get into a place where scoring was an option, we were not.

In the play below you will see three ball-screens set on the same possession.  Each one saw Illinois getting closer to the rim because of the ball-screen.  They ended up not scoring on this possession but I would argue it had little to do with our defense, which was more on it's heels than it probably should have been.

This next play shows similar ball-screen defense.  This time there was little help defense, the guard was able to get deep into the lane without any pressure, he found a wide open shooter who knocked it down.

I am not arguing that this is our one and only way we defend the ball-screen.  There are multiple ways to defend this, just watch an NBA game closely sometime.  Last night, what we were doing was not working.  At some point I was expecting a zone or a different mentality on the ball-screen.  But unfortunately this was a familiar scene on possession after possession (on both ends of the floor).

Was this why we lost?  No, there are a lot of reason we lost last night.  But this was an exercise in understanding why we use the ball-screen offensively and how Illinois took that away from us.  We just could not get our offense into any rhythm, we struggled to make adjustments on both ends and the result was a bad loss on our NCAA Tournament resume.