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Minnesota Basketball: The Possession Plan and Why Gopher Basketball is Really Struggling

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

I love basketball.  It is without question my favorite sport.  Everyone who has an affinity for a particular sport will tell you why the one they love is inherently best. They may wax poetic about how it transcends the simplistic and animal nature of other sports.  Baseball is beautiful in it's relaxed nature and the mental chess matches that occur pitch after pitch is fascinating to watch...if you understand it.  Football is the "ultimate team game" where one guy not doing his job correctly can impact the success rate of each individual play.  Not to mention that each play has the opportunity of instant success from anywhere on the field.  You get my point.  I appreciate the other major sports and thoroughly enjoy them as well, but basketball is my favorite.  There is a constant eb and flow, back and forth, transitioning from offense to defense and back again that when combined often tells a story in each game.  Like football, there is a necessary teamwork component to be truly successful and when teams master this (see Golden State), it is incredible to watch.

As much fun as it would be to write just about myself and the things I like, that's not my point.  I want to focus on this accumulation of transitions because that is essentially how you win a basketball game.  It is all about possessions, what you choose to do with them and how you accumulate more of them.  This isn't earth shattering news, but what is truly fascinating to me is how different coaches implement systems to either accumulate more possessions than the other team and/or what they do on each one to do a better job of executing on those possessions than their opponent.  But it all comes back to possessions and you need to have a plan for them.

The last couple seasons I have really begun to see this.  As I study each team in the Big Ten, as many of the coaches have longer tenures and their styles become clear; it becomes crystal clear that the really good programs in the Big Ten have a plan for possessions and that helps them win games consistently.  As I said, you really have 2 options (with "sub-options" within those options); accumulate extra possessions or do a superior job with the ones you have.

What Do Other Teams Do?

Bo Ryan while at Wisconsin created a system that became notorious for a rather bland and boring brand of basketball.  But I'd argue that he is the possession maestro.  He was absolutely intentional with possessions, his plan was to limit overall possessions for both teams and masterfully, albeit ugly, execute on his possessions better than his opponent.  Offensively and defensively his teams took few risks (so as not to give away possessions) and would operate efficiently.  Last year his team led the nation scoring almost 1.3 points per possession.  The year before they were 4th in the nation at 1.2 ppp.  They didn't have very many possessions but they were efficient on offense.  Defensively it wasn't about pressure, just not giving you anything easy and over the course of the game you would have to make a lot of contested or long field goals to beat the Badgers.  Giving up around 0.96 points per possession while scoring nearly 1.3...take that times about 60 possessions and you can see a sizeable average margin for Wisconsin.

Other programs are not so artful in their execution, so if you aren't going to out-execute your opponent, you better have a lot more possessions than they do.  If you are playing the Badgers, they are likely going to have a point per possession advantage, so what is your other option?  Gain MOAR possessions!  Maybe I only score 0.96 ppp while you score around 1.1; but if I have 10 extra possessions...I WIN. How do you get extra possessions?

One way is to force turnovers.  There are better examples of this outside of the Big Ten, you will see this more often in smaller leagues where teams get really good athletes who are less polished.  Ohio State and actually Minnesota are typically teams that are one of the best at creating turnovers.  Shaka Smart while at VCU led the nation 3 years in a row in forcing turnovers.  When you force a turnover on over 25% of your opponent's possessions, that's 25% of the time where they are not even getting a shot off...which my math tells me is a 0% chance of scoring.  Richard Pitino was successful with this strategy at Florida International, his first couple Gophers teams were pretty good at it too. I promise you will see this from higher seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan is another really interesting example of having a system in place to beat you on individual possessions, without worrying about how many they have.  John Beilein's system is to take and make a lot of threes.  If we both get 70 possessions and we both score on 35 of them, I'll win because I'm going to win because I'll make more threes than you.  Currently the Wolverines are third in the nation in eFG% (which takes into account threes as a slightly more valuable make than a 2-point FG).  They also are third in the nation in % of their total points that come from behind the arc.  They won't turn the ball over (giving you a lot of extra possessions) and they will beat you with possessions fairly even because they'll make more threes.  With the right players and taught well, this works great.  Michigan, under Beilein has been quietly one of the best Big Ten teams in the last handful of years.

The other way to gain extra possessions of offensive rebounding. Though technically not an extra possession but it is essentially the same because it allows you an extra opportunity to shoot the ball.  Indiana currently is 13th nationally in offensive rebounding.  Just about 39% of their own misses are retained, giving the Hoosiers an extra opportunity to score.  More opportunities to score, more shots and assuming you shoot a decent percentage that will lead to more points.  You need a broader strategy than just, "lets be a great offensive rebounding team," but this is clearly part of some coach's overall plan and a way to gain extra possessions.  Often teams that focus on generating turnovers will also stress offensive rebounding, doubling down on wanting more possessions than their opponent.

Defense obviously plays a factor here as well.  Purdue is a great example of a team that worries more about stopping your offensive efficiency than they are about just being better on offense than their opponent. Matt Painter teams, they will make your life a living hell when you have the ball.  If they hold opponents (yes, including Big Ten ones) to 0.9 ppp or less some years, then their offense only has to be a little better than that.  They can play offense too, but the focus for them is keeping you well below where you'd like to be offensively.  His most successful teams finished top 20 nationally in defensive ppp for 5 years in a row.  Generating turnovers sometimes comes along with great defense but it doesn't have to, the ultimate goal here is to make opposing offenses far less efficient than they are used to.

Universal Truths Regardless of System

There are two factors that are universal though, regardless of how you tackle the possession battle.  Defensive rebounding and offensive turnovers.  You CANNOT give away possessions.  They are too valuable.  Allowing teams to get extra shots or ending your own possessions with a turnover will dramatically diminish your chances of winning.  Gaining extra possessions is negated if you give them away.  And it is really hard to be better at executing if you are turning it over without a shot attempted.  You can get away with lacking in one of these unversals, but you better be really good at something else.

Iowa struggles with defensive rebounding (234th in the country) but their offense is highly efficient, they are as good at shooting threes as Michigan is and they are 3rd nationally in not turning the ball over.  Michigan State dominates the defensive glass but over time they often struggle turning the ball over...have no fear their defense is outstanding and their offense is efficient.

The really good programs have a system, they have a plan and they execute it well. And maybe they are good in more than one area.  Michigan State is always fascinating to watch because Tom Izzo has mastered the art of offensive execution, better than Bo Ryan.  They are similar to Wisconsin in that they will play very good defense, limiting your points per possession. And they will execute their offense at a highly efficient rate.  They consistently are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country but they aren't afraid to raise the tempo a little and have some more possessions.  But Tom Izzo has mastered this.  His teams handle the universal aspect of dominating defensive rebounding and they are excellent on offense.  His team's offensive execution is second to none in my estimation.  Year after year his teams will plug the right mix of shooters, bruisers and athletes into the lineup and destroy teams with their attention to detail in their offensive sets.

So what does this have to do with the Gophers?

Unfortunately nothing.  Remember when I just said how the good programs have a system?  Well this is a huge reason the Gophers are struggling so much, not just this season but last year as well. There appears to be no plan, there is very little sense of understanding the value of a possession.  It could be that the personnel doesn't quite fit the desired plan.  Maybe the plan is just not a good one that is going to give us our best opportunity to win consistently. Or it could be that the desired plan is poorly communicated and taught.  Probably a combination of all three.

One of my favorite things about Pitino in year 1 was his team's gameplanning for opponents and how well we executed different strategies, to counter their strengths.  Opponent scouting and gameplanning is certainly important, but what has been really lacking over 2 1/2 years is an attention to detail and execution of our own plan for possessions.

That's not totally fair, there is a plan and you can see it, but it really isn't working this year.  When hired it appeared as though Richard Pitino's plan was going to be a team that acquired possessions, forced a lot of turnovers that transitioned to a higher number of high percentage baskets.  And that's fine, it is an acceptable model, it is a plan that can succeed.  Unfortunately it isn't working, here is why...

Defensively this plan is predicated on pressure and it all starts here.  Pressure, leading to turnovers and turnovers that lead to transition baskets.  This is imperative.  The problem is that we are not applying pressure on teams and when we try we are too often giving up easy field goals to the opponent.  This is when your plan is working against you and going terribly wrong!  So for much of last year and this one we have been forced into a zone defense to take away the easy scoring opportunities.  This turns us into a half-court offensive team that needs to be better at executing on that end, but we struggle with this.

We are not going to "out-execute" you and considering how poorly we shoot from behind the arc, we are not going to make enough threes to beat you that way.  We don't particularly crash the offensive boards very well to garner extra shots and to compound our problems we don't exactly end possessions with defensive rebounds.  The numbers?  They match the eye-test to show that this team really is not in a very good place right now.

What would you say our plan is offensively?  Over the last couple seasons is appears to be an attempt to allow our players to make plays.  Isolation plays and giving guys opportunities to beat their man.  But look at the most successful teams in the conference over time, they rely on offensive execution and teamwork.  Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa (this year).  The closest proximity to what our plan appears to be is Ohio State.  The difference is that they are recruiting superior talent, some of the best athletes in the country.  Their best years are when guys like Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger, Mike Conley and D'Angelo Russell are on the floor and they are able to create.  We are not recruiting at that level.

I will grant that the lack of a viable offensive player in the paint is a significant blow to this offense.  Even just having a guy like Mo Walker made our offense quite a bit more efficient.  But the Gophers need a better plan on offense, currently we are inefficient and it leads to a lot of shots with a low percent chance of going through the hoop.  It does boost our free throw attempts and that has actually kept us in a number of games.  Free throw attempts is an important factor but it lags behind rebounding, turnovers and making shots in my opinion.

On the defensive side I feel like there is a plan but it is floundering with a lack of attention to detail and still missing some necessary personnel components.  Having Joey King on the floor reduces our athleticism and in the full-court, he is a liability.  Guys like Carlos Morris and Charles Buggs are certainly athletic enough but are just not aware enough defensively, their poor defensive awareness leads to a lot of easy baskets for the other team.  Is that just their lack of grasping defensive concepts or is it a poor job of teaching on the staff's part?  I don't know.  In the half-court we tend to over-help and stay way too long, leaving cutters and shooters wide open.

We always seem to come back to the "next year" mindset, and I will here as well.  Next year the pieces should be in place to execute "the plan" better.  At that point it will be incumbent upon the staff to make sure it is executed properly.  It all starts with the defense and pressure.  I'd really like to see a different plan on offense in the half-court when pressure doesn't lead to transition baskets.  The plan can continue to be predicated on penetration that leads to fouls, points in the paint or kick-out threes; but what I'd like to see are offensive sets that put players in better position to get to the lane.  Sets that put the defense in a compromising position rather than relying on our player to beat his man.

You can see that there is a plan for possessions here.  I'm not asking that we replicate Wisconsin or Michigan, we have a plan but it needs to be taught better and it needs to be executed.  As we all try to get through this year and we look for rays of sunshine to give us hope for next year.  What I'm looking for are the guys who get it on both ends of the floor.  Guys who understand what we are trying to accomplish and the guys capable of executing our plan for possessions.  Get more, value the ones we have.