Since I’ve starting writing for The Daily Gopher, waaaaaay back in March of 2015, I’ve had to curtail my blind homerism in favor of a more cautious and analytic approach, especially in relation to the Gophers. For one, Gopher sports has been the classic gut punch for most of it’s history so being a blind homer in their favor is liable to make you regret many a prediction. For another, blind optimism doesn’t make for appealing (or accurate) writing.
I begin this article with the above paragraph in order to illustrate that the following statement has a firm foundation in fact-based analysis and critical thinking:
Based on available data, the Minnesota Golden Gophers should make the 2017 NCAA tournament.
I do not make this statement lightly, especially since the season is only at it’s half-way point. But the evidence we have collected thus far and what we can project going forward can only logically converge at the above conclusion. Below, I’ll set up three distinct categories of reasoning for why I think the Gophers SHOULD (notice the statement is not WILL) be dancing come March 12th: statistical support from the first half of the season, arbitrary eye-test observations, and remaining schedule considerations.
The main statistic to support Minnesota going dancing is the fact that they currently rank as the 15th-best defensive team in the nation by defensive efficiency (per KenPom). Teams that play at this level of defense typically do not miss the NCAA Tournament. In the last five years, out of the 75 teams that finished in the top 15 in defensive efficiency in any of those five years, only seven of them have missed the tournament (9.3%) and one of those was last year’s Louisville squad, which only missed the tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban. Since the season is 15 games old (ie about half the regular season has been played), one could safely assume that this level of defense is not a mirage built on an easy schedule or a small sample size but rather a statistically significant portion of the schedule. Junior center Reggie Lynch has truly been an astounding difference-maker on the defensive side of the ball as he currently boasts the best block percentage in nation at 16.2%. This, along with additional athletic length on the perimeter in the form of freshman Amir Coffey and improvement from sophomore Dupree McBrayer have completely transformed Minnesota on the defensive side of the ball, enabling them to compete against anyone on their schedule despite forcing turnovers at a slightly below Division I average rate.
Furthermore, the team has displayed the valuable offensive ability of getting to the free throw line. Minnesota currently ranks 12th in the nation in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) with an excellent 46.2%. The ability to get to the line on offense can often make up for the lack-luster shooting that sometimes plagues this squad for long stretches. Free throw rate becomes even more valuable if the Gophers can shoot free throws at an even mildly respectable rate. Thus far in conference play, their conversion rate at the line has hovered at 68%. This ranks 9th in the conference. Unfortunately, there isn’t statistical evidence to suggest that this will improve over the rest of the schedule so in the event that the Gophers miss the field of 68 in March, this is probably one of the specific areas one could point to to ascertain why such an event occurred. But the fact remains that getting to the line is one of KenPom’s four factors and the Gophers currently display a nationally elite ability to perform this function.
Another specific data point that alludes to continued success is the lack of reliance on a single player for offensive production. There are eight players on the roster that have garnered the majority of minutes thus far this season. Of those eight players, only one, junior center Bakary Konate has an offensive usage percentage below 18% (14.3%). Additionally, sophomore forward Jordan Murphy is the only one of those eight players that has a usage percentage above 23% (24.1%). Generally speaking, this team does not rely on any one scoring option to find success on the offensive end. While offensive droughts have been a periodic problem due to inconsistent shooting and a sporadic cogent offensive plan, a lack of dependence on a single offensive entity is a valuable characteristic for a team to have. Junior point guard Nate Mason will not score 30 points every game as he did in West Lafayette on Sunday afternoon but because he isn’t the singular focal point of the Gophers’ offense means he doesn’t have to ball out of his mind for the team to continue its early season success.
Arbitrary Eye-Test Observations
Disregarding advanced statistics for this section, this team just flat out looks like it can compete with anyone on any given night. The only two losses so far this season are to an incredibly talented one-loss Florida State team (in Tallahassee mind you) that ranks 20th in KenPom overall efficiency and could very well challenge for the ACC title, and a Michigan State squad in a game where the Gophers’ youth and inability to convert at the line cost them a one-point overtime contest. Couple these data points with blow out victories over quality teams in Arkansas and UT-Arlington (yes, they are indeed a quality team by just about any metric available to us) and the Gophers have been capable of competing at a very high level.
The talent level of the entire squad has been drastically overhauled and improved by a combination of a talented recruiting class, transfers, and a noticeable evolution from returning players. The bench is no longer a barren wasteland, not when you can bring in senior transfer guard Akeem Springs and freshman forward Eric Curry. And while Konate hasn’t been great and still has huge issues with foul trouble, compiling a mind-bogglingly bad 8.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes, he has shown signs of being a passable defensive/rebounding specialist who can give Lynch a spell when deemed necessary.
A final slightly arbitrary observation, though I’ll use a fun little visual aid to help strengthen my argument, is that the team appears to be getting better as the season goes on. While this particular phenomenon might be a foreign concept to Minnesota fans scarred by the Tubby Smith years, this team seems to be playing more confidently as the freshmen on the team accumulate experience and the firmly established starting five gains more familiarity with each other. To illustrate this point, see the below graph (NOTE: Being lower on this graph is a good thing because the data points represent our ranking. Being ranked 1st is best).
Since the beginning of the season, the Gophers’ overall KenPom rating has seen continual improvement. This indicates a reaffirmation of the eye-test and suggests that the freshmen are improving as they adjust to challenges of big time college basketball and the lineups are continuing to gel effectively. While continual improvement past a certain point is statistically unlikely and in some cases impossible (that is to say, you can’t go past ranking number 1 in the above graph), it seems plausible that the more Big Ten experience Coffey, Curry, Lynch, and Springs gain, the better off the team will be. If this relatively safe assumption is true, the team has yet to reach it’s ceiling for the season. Since the team currently holds a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, continual improvement will only make their resume more attractive and a tournament bid even more likely.
Remaining Schedule Considerations
The last piece of the puzzle is Minnesota’s remaining schedule. KenPom currently has the Gophers projected to go 9-7 in the season’s remaining 16 games, which would all but guarantee an invite to the Big Dance. However, we all know that no system for evaluating the outcome of games, especially when it comes to college basketball, is 100% accurate. The easiest example of this is the fact that KenPom had us beating Michigan State at home and losing to Purdue on the road, when in fact, the complete opposite occurred. All this is to say that while KenPom likes us to got 9-7 the rest of the way, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Simultaneously, it is important to note that a system based on available data sees us as a completely viable tournament team and a 10-8 conference record as an event of decent probability.
Furthermore, the Gophers just pulled off a victory in what is likely to be the second-toughest game on their conference schedule. While playing at the Kohl Center against the rival Wisconsin Badgers on March 5th appears to be the biggest challenge of the conference slate, beating a ranked Purdue team at Mackey Arena demonstrates this team’s ability to compete with anyone that remains on their schedule. As the first half of the season has played out, it has become evident that the Big Ten does not have a nationally elite team this year. While this may be disadvantageous to the Gophers in regards to strength of schedule come selection time, the fact that no single game can be written off as completely unwinnable is a major reason why the expectations for this team going forward should be to make the NCAA Tournament.
The time has passed where thinking that the 2016-2017 Minnesota Golden Gophers should be satisfied with an NIT birth or a moderate improvement from last season’s tire fire is this squad’s ceiling. Due to a massive change in roster construction, this team is vastly different than last year’s iteration and this fact should change the perception of their potential ultimate destination at the end of the season. Reggie Lynch has transformed the team defensively. Nate Mason has established consistency at the point guard position by limiting turnovers and being a reliable offensive contributor. Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer have been threats on both sides of the ball from the wings. Jordan Murphy has been able to draw fouls and rebound at a high rate. All these things, and more, working in tandem have completely changed what can be considered reasonable expectations for this team.
Those who believed the Gophers would go dancing this year should no longer be considered starry-eyed dreamers. Thanks to statistical evidence pointing to a nationally good defense and improved team play, combined with the slightly more arbitrary feeling that “this team is different,” the NCAA Tournament isn’t some impossible Shangri-La anymore. A ticket to March Madness is something that is not only possible but statistically probable for these Gophers.