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Minnesota Basketball: Four Surprises So Far This Year

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The first half of the season has been full of unexpected results and performances.

NCAA Basketball: LIU Brooklyn at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, let’s take a break from the world of football and focus on some happy stuff, shall we?

The Gophers are on an extended break for finals this week, and with one non-conference game remaining we’re getting a pretty good idea of who this team is and, more importantly, what they’re capable of.

Last season was so bad that I actually viewed it as an aberration. The program was in something of a one-year holding period with transfers on the bench and incoming, game-changing recruits yet to arrive on campus. So, with little talent, they struggled tremendously. But coming into 2016-17, it was anyone’s guess how this team would perform. With drastic turnover, there was bound to be addition by subtraction; the question was just how much.

If you’d asked me before the season how the non-conference would turn out, I’d have been satisfied with a 9-3 performance. A year after dropping games to UW-Milwaukee and South Dakota of all teams, just being relevant was good enough for me. But with a fairly tough non-conference schedule, the fact that they’re 11-1 should speak volumes to not only where they’re at, but their potential this season to make some noise.

Where’s this all coming from? Well, a talent influx certainly helps. Having a true, game-altering center in Reggie Lynch is huge. Amir Coffey has been as good, if not better than advertised. But there are also some stark differences from last year that are really helping them move the needle and, frankly, have been surprising improvements.

Where’d that defense come from?

Minnesota ended last year ranked 162 in KenPom on defense, which was highly average. This year? They check in at 22 in the nation, which is a crazy leap. They were getting torched inside and outside last year and didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep themselves in the game, which resulted in hella losses.

Lynch provides a HUGE upgrade over Bakary Konate and is one of national leaders in blocks per game. That frees up some of the other guys to defend shots from the outside. And with Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer adding a ton of length to the 2 and 3 spots, the defense is extended. And that’s a big time upgrade over guys like Carlos Morris and Joey King. In fact, from 1-4, the Gophers can basically interchange guys on defense, which is beneficial when rotating and closing out

Also, let’s not understate the importance of adding a veteran assistant coach in Ed Conroy. Ustreet made a good point that having a guy with tons of experience breaking down film and structuring practices likely does wonders behind the scenes. We’re seeing that play out on the court.

The evolution of Dupree

Coming into this season I was really hoping for/expecting bigger things from Dupree McBrayer. Pitino praised his offseason commitment to improving his shot and adding size, and though he was suspended for the final few games last year, he was clearly starting to click down the stretch. And that’s looking much more like trend than a mirage these days.

In fact, of all the players on the team from last year, he’s made arguably the biggest leap. He’s third on the team in scoring, is shooting an impressive 48.5% from the field and looks super confident. He’s driving strong to the hoop, finishing tough plays and flashing a three-point ability. Long story short, he’s turning into a reliable scorer, and that’s huge for a team in desperate need of one (or three).

Finishing games, not folding

Speaking of scoring, one of the biggest surprises/improvements this year has been the team’s ability to finish games. Now, they’re not quite Duke, so they aren’t blowing out mid-majors night in and night out, but when they’ve gotten into some hot water late in games it’s been amazing how much backbone such a young team has shown. The Vanderbilt game, in particular, was a game that last year’s team would have given away. But instead of folding and playing scared, the Gophers this year took a deep breath and finished things off down the stretch. Part of that is stability from veterans like Nate Mason, and Lynch, but it’s also in large part to guys who can just get the job done. Akeem Springs is showing to be a savvy addition to the team and the fact that he’s played in a number of tough situations over the years adds stability to a young team in tough situations.

Now, the biggest question is if they can do that in hostile gyms during conference play. That will be the deciding factor between being tournament-caliber and giving away the season. Keep in mind that year’s team lost EIGHT games by 6 points or less. There’s reason to be optimistic.

Is that Minnesota getting AP votes?

Pinch yourself if you must, but it’s not a dream. The Gophers are, in fact, playing well enough to warrant AP poll votes. Based on last year’s nightmare, it’s incredible that a such a turnaround is happening. And what’s more? Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology has them as one of his last four teams IN. The NCAA Tournament is basically the stretch goal for this year’s team, so it’s satisfying to see that it’s actually within reach.

The Gophers also have done such a good job in the non-conference department that their resume will only serve to boost their bubble profile should they find themselves in the conversation later this season. UT-Arlington, Arkansas and Vanderbilt are all wins that will keep on giving this year. It’s quite amazing that a team with a historically bad record last year controls its tournament destiny just one year later.