After a dreadful 8-23 campaign a year ago, the Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s basketball team has already matched their win total from last season in 22 fewer games. All but the most optimistic of Gopher Nation didn’t see this team going 8-1 in the first nine contests this season, considering the four major conference teams on the schedule and the general youth and unfamiliarity of the roster. Give Coach Pitino and the Gophers credit: they have certainly exceeded the expectations of many a basketball prognosticator during the early portion of the schedule.
However, regardless of the drastic improvement in product on the court, both from a general aesthetic point of a view and the win column, fans always want more. And more, in this case, is somehow sneaking into the NCAA Tournament during the 2016-2017 season. Is it really possible for the Gophers to go from 2 conference wins to the Big Dance in just a year? Since they have already surprised many thus far and there are still months of basketball left to be played, I dare not make a prediction one way or the other. But there are still some things that can be winnowed from the nine game sample size that observers such as myself can identify as “keys” to making the dream of the NCAA Tourney a reality. The following five statistics will either paint a picture of the season thus far or will emphasize something that needs to change in order for Minnesota to reach goals that at the beginning of the season seemed nearly impossible.
NOTE: These statistics are reflective of NCAA games up until 12/6/2016 and have been taken from KenPom.com.
This is the current block percentage (an estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while they were on the floor) of center Reggie Lynch. He ranks 1st in the Big Ten and, maybe more amazingly, 3rd (!!!) nationally in this statistic. This particular number is an individual player statistic that reflects the drastic turn around in team defense that has been evident between last season’s debacle (162nd nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom) and this year’s thoroughly respectable showing (27th). Lynch has been everything Gopher Nation had hoped he would be on the defensive end when it was announced that he would be transferring from Illinois State back to his home state of Minnesota. His ability to alter shots from opposing driving guards has allowed the perimeter defenders of the Gophers a lot more room for error. Consequently, the Gophers have been able to create more fast-break opportunities for the offense due to break outs from Lynch blocks. These easy baskets have at times eased the scoring burden in the half-court for a less-than-stellar offense that is still finding its footing this season. If Lynch can continue to anchor the front court and create blocks at a nationally elite level while simultaneously avoiding foul trouble, it will do wonders for the Gophers in Big Ten play.
Nate Mason, in an albeit small sample size, has shot 44.4% from 3-point range so far this season. To his credit, he is taking 4 3-point attempts per game, so the improved shooting percentage isn’t a mirage explained solely by a hot one game stretch. The presence of scoring threats in Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, and Dupree McBrayer have given Mason more space to operate, allowing looks of much higher quality than a majority of last year, where he shot only 30.2% from behind the arc. While senior transfer Akeem Springs takes 5.3 3-point attempts per game at a 35.4% clip, Mason has been more efficient. If the point guard and team captain can continue to shoot in the 40-45% range throughout the season, it will open up more space for interior players like Lynch and Murphy to operate and force teams to account for Mason at all times. Springs has been respectable in his role as “shooter who always has the green light in his head,” so combine his confidence and moderate effectiveness with Mason’s efficiency and you have a decent outside threat from a team offense perspective.
The above number represents the Gophers’ defensive turnover percentage (turnovers created divided by opponent possessions) which currently ranks 245th in the nation. While the defense, as mentioned above, has seen a drastic improvement in overall efficiency, come Big Ten time, they will not be able to rely on Lynch blocking every shot and using the height advantage that they have against smaller teams, such as NJIT, to limit offensive opportunities for their opponents. Big Ten teams are much more athletic and taller than most of the teams the Gophers have faced thus far in the season. The need to create more turnovers on the defensive side of the ball is twofold. One, forcing turnovers often leads to easy offense in transition, relieving some of the burden on the half-court offense. Two, it limits the need for opposing teams to have a poor shooting night in order for the Gopher defense to be effective. If the defense creates more turnovers, they are limiting scoring opportunities. The 17.9 figure above would likely need to improve in order for Minnesota to have a chance at the dance.
The Gophers thus far this season rank an impressive 18th nationally in Free Throw Rate, with .485 free throw attempts per every field goal attempt. This would be spectacular news... if Minnesota made free throws at even an average clip. The 68.1% from the free throw line ranks 208th nationally (11th in the Big Ten) and the Gophers are currently sandwiched between basketball power houses North Carolina Central and Florida A&M in the national standings in this statistic. For all the improvement McBrayer has shown on his three-point shot, his free throw percentage sits at 64.5% on the season which is a seemingly unacceptable conversion rate for a guard. Murphy and Lynch are also bringing down the team’s overall percentage as they shoot 51.4% and 55.6%, respectively, from the charity stripe. If the team’s overall free throw percentage doesn’t climb to at least 70% (approximately Division I average), the team is going to lose close games more often than not likely dashing any dreams of over-achieving for the season.
Freshman Amir Coffey has been everything Minnesota fans could have wished for so far this season. He has brought energy back to the Barn in the form of his entertaining play and local ties. He is also performing at a high level offensively right off the bat for the Gophers, something that wasn’t necessarily expected or guaranteed at the beginning of the season. Coffey currently ranks 152st in the nation in individual free throw rate with 57.0%. While his national rank may not be mind-blowing, consider the freshman playing in his first nine collegiate games being in the 88th percentile nationally in a key offensive statistic. Amir’s ability to get to the free throw line highlights the overall impact he has had on the Gopher’s offense. His ability to continue to raise the bar will highlight how much of a difference he will be able to make in Big Ten play. The freshman wall often occurs when one is presented with Big Ten basketball but if Coffey can continue to get to the free throw line and convert at a decent clip, it should open up the rest of his offensive game and give the Minnesota offense another tool to employ and avoid half-court stagnation.
It is highly unlikely that all of these statistics will improve. But they illustrate points of the game that have contributed to the success the team has had so far or that need to change in order for the team to over achieve beyond expectations and reach the Big Dance. If that still unlikely end of the season does occur, it will be because of an improvement in free throw shooting percentage and defensive turnover percentage, continuing to get blocked shots from Lynch, good three-point efficiency from Mason, and the continual evolution of Coffey as an offensive threat.