Posting this article the day after Minnesota had its worst scoring output during the Pitino era is slightly too on the nose for a Gophers fan. Nevertheless, our first article on the team’s play so far focuses on why the Gophers still struggle to score. In Big Ten play, the Gophers are 12th in the conference in points per possession. After Penn State and Wisconsin, the Gophers will have played the most difficult stretch of their season so that number should rise. Nevertheless, the offense is cause for concern.
The main reason why the offense has struggled is that there is a blueprint to defeating the Gophers. The Gophers are at their best in transition and when they are able to drive the lane. Minnesota’s primary offensive actions are designed to get the defense moving with shooters, which opens driving lanes for guards. This offense can be very successful, like at the beginning of the Purdue or Ohio State games. Unfortunately, it relies on two keys. First, there must be some consistent threat from the outside to force some level of honesty from defenders. Second, the Gophers must be able to get to the paint.
Minnesota has two losses to Michigan State and one to Florida State. The latter is a top 10 team and the former is returning to its elite status as it integrates Miles Bridges back into the lineup. In all three losses the Gophers were held to under a point per possession. In each loss, the opposing team packed the paint and was very physical on players coming around screens. This disrupted the flow of Minnesota’s offense. As a result, the Gophers settled for lots of jump shots, mostly from mid range.
Sometimes, that settling is not a problem. Nate Mason’s excellent game against Purdue showed that if a team can make the mid range jumper they can still overcome this defensive strategy. Unfortunately, the team is not good at shooting jump shots. The Gophers are 13th in conference in three point field goal percentage and 10th in conference in two point field goal percentage. Moreover, in each loss the Gophers have given up trying to attack the basket. Minnesota has frequently looked lost when their initial action does not open up a driving lane.
From a structural perspective this seems to indicate two changes. First, there needs to be more set offense to get an individual player in an advantageous position. Think the St. John’s game when the Gophers ran multiple plays to get Amir Coffey in a post up against a smaller defender. The same kind of offense happened for Jordan Murphy in the Ohio State game. Second, the Gophers have to make some adjustments to their base motion sets to counter how the defense plays. More quick passing and double pick and rolls and pick and pops could be an answer. We have been pleasantly surprised with Pitino’s coaching improvement this season, and we are reasonably confident he will make the necessary corrections.
Minnesota has scored by committee this season. On any given night, Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey, Akeem Spring, or Jordan Murphy has been asked to carry the load on offense. In many ways, this distribution is a blessing. Opposing teams cannot spend the majority of their defensive focus looking to stop one player if there are four others that can score in different ways. In other ways, this scoring distribution has been a weakness. Part of the reason that so many different players have carried the load this season is because a previous player has been struggling. In their three losses, each of those players besides Mason has had an average offensive rating of 90 or below.
Going forward, two players in particular need to find fits within the offense. Jordan Murphy is the most important. The sophomore has tons of talent, but with Reggie Lynch in the starting lineup, he has been forced out to the perimeter. The goal seems to be to use his athleticism to take defenders off the dribble, however, defenders do not respect his shot and are purposely sagging back. Furthermore, they are sending doubles from the backside that Murphy has had difficulty reading. This is problematic because if Murphy could read these double teams consistently the Gophers would have a wide open shot or an open driving lane as a result of a ball reversal. Murphy remains an obvious starter because of his defense and rebounding ability. It is up to Pitino to figure out a new method of giving his power forward touches in the paint to get his confidence back.
Dupree McBrayer is the second player. McBrayer is most likely to take his man off the dribble. When he’s playing well, he has been able to use his quickness and strength to get into the paint and make a circus shot or get fouled. When he is not playing well, he is a possession black hole. The sophomore has taken almost a quarter of the team’s shot despite an effective field goal percentage of less than 50%. He is 3-15 from three point distance, most of those in catch and shoot situations. That’s an unacceptable percentage from a key contributor on offense. Much like Murphy, McBrayer has the capability to play at a very high level. There is hope that he will regress in a positive direction, but until that time he needs to become more of a facilitator on offense.