Minnesota’s stunning turnaround from last season’s woeful eight win performance has rightly put Richard Pitino into the conversation for coach of the year. At 3-2 in conference play and 15-3 on the season, the Gophers control their own destiny to get into the NCAA tournament. If Minnesota manages to make the tournament, it will be because of their transformation on defense this season. As of this writing, the Gophers are 9th in the country in defensive rating, a stunning turnaround from last year. In this post, we take a look at a few factors that have led to that change.
First and foremost, the major change from last year to this year is talent. Any coach will tell you that it is easy to look like a genius with great talent. Minnesota replaced Charles Buggs, Joey King, Carlos Morris, and Bakary Konate with Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, Reggie Lynch, and reserve Bakary Konate. In addition, Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason have both improved from last year to this year.
Minnesota has improved not just in talent, but also in height and length. As a team, the Gophers are 15th in the country in average height. Coffey and Curry are both taller than Joey King and Carlos Morris, and both are far quicker. Coffey in particular is an opportunistic defender who is able to get steals and disrupt passing lanes. Curry is big enough to be able to defend centers if necessary, something that Joey King simply was unable to do.
Reggie Lynch (when he is able to stay on the floor) has been the defensive force that we expected him to be. Lynch leads the conference in blocks per game and is second in the entire nation in block percentage. His presence on the floor has also allowed perimeter defenders to be more aggressive because Lynch is skilled and quick enough to be able to corral guards driving to the rim.
Because of Lynch, Bakary Konate has returned to the bench and become an excellent contributor. The junior was not ready for a starting role last year, and still has much to learn to be a starting caliber player. Off the bench is another story. Konate is stronger and more talented than most other reserve centers. He has improved across all defensive categories and is playing with a newfound confidence.
Structurally, Pitino has not changed much from last year. The team does not press, though after made baskets the defense applies token pressure to shave time off the shot clock and contribute to an aggressive mindset. The Gophers still base out of a man to man defense, and have rarely played zone. What has been different from last year to this year is their improvement in three point defense. Three point defense has been a bane for the last two years, but this year the Gophers are seventh in the nation in three point defense. If we narrow to just conference games, the Gophers are third in the conference in opponent’s three point field goal percentage.
Why have the Gophers become so much better at defending the three? For starters, it helps to be bigger and taller, but that is just the start. The Gophers have done a much better job of applying pressure to shooters by sticking with men around screens and keeping a hand up at all times. Defense is mostly an effort based skill, and with the notable exception of the last Michigan State game, the Gophers have played with excellent effort throughout the season. Beyond staying close around screens, the Gophers have also done a better job preventing perimeter players from getting into the lane. Many of the open three the Gophers gave up last year were the result of dribble penetration and slow defensive rotations. This season Minnesota has done a much better job of keeping guards on the perimeter and forcing the ball around the edges.
A reasonable question is whether this level of defensive play is sustainable. Similar to Minnesota’s season in general, much of that answer depends on how real you believe the Gophers to be. There is still plenty of season left for a young team to crash and burn. I am optimistic that will not be the case. For one, the Gophers have played excellent competition and kept their defensive rating high. For another, while the team is young they have rarely played like a young team on defense (Michigan State II again being the exception).
Penn State on Saturday will be a key game for Minnesota’s season. The Gophers have an opportunity to get another road win in a game for which they will be the favorite. Penn State has been miserable on offense this season, and Minnesota should be able to use this game to regain confidence. With a win, Minnesota will be 4-2 headed into the Wisconsin game and in great shape for the rest of the season.