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Minnesota Basketball: Early Defensive Struggles Could Lead to Big Trouble

The Gophers are playing pretty porous defense, and if things don't change in a hurry, the season could take some ugly turns come Big Ten Conference play.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The beginning of the season has played out pretty much as I thought it might. Outside of the curb-stomping Tubby's Texas Tech squad put on the Gophers in Puerto Rico, the results have pretty much gone as expected. Sure, the Omaha game was too close for comfort but a team that plays at that speed (4th in the nation in adjusted tempo according to KenPom) against a team as young as Minnesota is sure to make for some wonky results. And the lack of a true blow out against several lackluster opponents have created severe concern about the team going forward into the Big Ten. But as it stands now, a 5-2 record with good health is just fine at the stage in the season for this particular roster.

That being said, there is a very concerning long-term trend that the current Gopher squad is continuing to exhibit under Coach Pitino's tenure that could spell disaster for the rest of the season. While the roster is relatively young, a team in the third year of a coach's tenure should be able to perform a specific task with at least a modicum of success.

The specific task I am referring to is playing defense.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers currently rank 186th out of 351 Division I teams in adjusted defensive efficiency rating. That is downright atrocious. Take into consideration that the Gophers have played the only the 207th hardest schedule in the country (per KenPom) and the lack of defensive prowess is even worse. No matter how "young" or "lacking in talent" your roster is, a Big 5 conference team should always be capable of playing some kind of defense, especially when this is the third year under the current head coach. Now, the warning signs were there, considering Florida International ranked 177th in defensive efficiency rating in Pitino's final year with the program but one would have thought that being given more talented players and playing in a defense-oriented conference, such as the Big Ten, would have changed the coach's strategy, if only slightly.

To give you a visual idea of how bad this team's defense has been so far this year, let me present the following graph:

Ken Pom Defense

Brief Explanation

The graph shows the adjusted defensive efficiency rating rank of the Gophers for each year, all the way back to when Ken Pomeroy starting tracking his stats in 2002. So the lower the point is, the better the defense was in that given year.

Thoughts Regarding the Chart

  • So far this year against mediocre to bad competition, the team has played the worst defense of the last decade and half of Gopher basketball. This is troubling considering there have been some pretty bad teams at the Barn, especially in 2007 when the team went 9-22. That team was still 64 places higher on the defensive rankings than this current edition.
  • Richard Pitino's defenses have gotten progressively worst in his three year tenure. His best defense, ranked 86th in the country in 2014, filled with mostly players he inherited from the previous administration, was worse than previous head coach Tubby Smith's worst defensive squad (72nd in the country in 2008, his first year at the helm).
  • In 2005 and 2009, the Gophers had legitimate championship-caliber defenses. Since KenPom starting in 2002, the team that wins the NCAA Tournament has always had a defense rating in the top 15.


There are some caveats when presenting the above chart. This team has only played seven games so far this season and some people could cry small sample size bias. This is true. Minnesota has only completed about 23% of its games so far this season. However, against weak competition, one would argue that having a low rating now does not bode well for competing against the likes of the offenses of Indiana (5th in offensive efficiency), Purdue (11th), Maryland (14th), and other highly rated offenses in the Big Ten this year.

So far this season, the Gophers have ridden a crumby schedule and incredibly efficient offensive output from the likes of Joey King (give the man his props, he ranks 4th in the ENTIRE NATION in effective field goal percentage with a ridiculous .578/.578/.923 shooting line) and Charles Buggs (47.4% from three point land) to a respectable record and a victory in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge (which we won, again!). But if this poor defensive effort continues and Pitino's team isn't able to create turnovers at a high rate like they have done the previous two seasons, it could spell disaster for the Big Ten slate. Example: Seven of the top 27 teams in adjusted offensive efficiency rating are Big Ten teams. Even when Deandre Mathieu, the Hollins Boys, and Carlos Morris were flying around the past few years creating steals and turnovers, the defense was still inefficient and porous. Now that those turnovers have dried up, you get a defense ranked 186th in the country and the daunting task of stopping Indiana, Michigan State (7th), and Michigan (9th) in the conference slate.

If things don't turn around quickly, we could be in for a looooooong winter.