The opening of the Big Ten season has not been fun for the Gophers. Minnesota is 0-4 in conference play, 11-6 on the season, and still looking for a quality win (or a second depending on your view of Georgia). The Gophers have looked sloppy on offense and porous on defense. Players look like they are operating out of different playbooks in the half court. A back court duo that coming into the year looked to be one of the best in conference has played the Gophers out of several games this year. Perhaps most depressingly, the team has made basic mistakes at critical times during games. In short, it has been an ugly start to Big Ten play, and the potential for a NCAA Tournament bid grows smaller each game.
This post examines the offensive woes so far during Big Ten season.
Numbers from KenPom and Hoop-Math
This graph shows the difference between the Four Factors for the entire season, and the conference. Every single factor is worse for the conference. Minnesota has nearly flipped its offensive and defensive efficiency scores. Furthermore, the Gophers are turning the ball over more, giving up more of offensive rebounds, and getting to the free throw line less. To a degree, this is competition based. The Gophers played a lot of terrible teams and ran circles around them. However, the team did not change personnel between the last six games of the non-conference season and the Big Ten season. Of the teams they have played so far, only Maryland has looked like a legitimate top 25 team.
Focusing just on the offensive side of the ball, the Gophers are a dramatically worse shooting team in Big Ten play. This has not been for a lack of open shots, but rather because the team takes lots of bad shots. Early long jumpers, tough runners, and shots late that are well contested by the defense have been more of the norm than an aberration in Big Ten play. Moreover, Minnesota has been unable to get to the line, and when they do get their are absolutely horrid from the charity stripe. Minnesota is last in the conference in free throw percentage, shooting 61% from the line.
Much of the offensive failure can be explained by two factors: lack of execution in the half court, and a reduction in transition opportunities.
Let's start with the half court. I don't have pictures of the sets for this post, but I do have numbers. For the season, the Gophers have taken ~69% of their shots after the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, which is a good definition for non-transition attempts. In conference play, that number has risen to 74% of attempts. So far, teams that have kept Minnesota out of transition have been successful. The Gophers are a far more stagnant team in the half court and the vast majority of possessions (even the ones that result in points) look like difficult work.
Why is this? For starters, the Gophers' offense has multiple players who are black holes when they receive the ball. As an example, Mo Walker is a tremendous force in the low post, but he has not yet been able to consistently recognize double, triple, or at one point in the Michigan game quadruple, teams and make the right pass to an open teammate.
Walker is not helped by an inconsistent three-point offense. Andre Hollins and Joey King have been going through slumps, and the Gophers don't have another shooter who can realistically spread the floor. King and Buggs prefer to play out at the perimeter, and much of Pitino's offense is based in the 4-1. Unfortunately, the offense has failed to create space in the lane to allow slashers like Morris and Mathieu room to create. Nate Mason has the potential to be a dangerous three point shooter, but even in the three guard attack with Mathieu and Hollins, defenses are still willing to double and triple Walker.
Lastly, I should note that all of these issues are fixable, but how soon that fix comes is an open question. I reject the notion that Minnesota does not have the talent to compete for a NCAA Tournament birth. Most of the problem with talent can be overcome with good coaching and a good system. I witnessed the Gophers play excellently in the half court this year. There was a four minute stretch during the Maryland game where the system worked perfectly. The bigs set great screens, the guards were able to attack the lane, and every three point shot was uncontested. Execution is as much about effort and being in position to succeed as it is about pure talent. The former is on the players, the latter is on the coaches.