The 2016-17 Minnesota Golden Gophers made a remarkable turnaround from last year’s debacle of a season. I am starting this post off with an admission that I was 100% wrong about how I thought this season would play out. In November I wrote that I viewed the Gophers making the NCAA Tournament this year as highly unlikely. In fact, I wondered what it would actually take for Pitino to retain his job:
But even with my skepticism of Pitino as a long-term answer here, I believe the notion that it is going to take a run to the NCAA Tournament is not only an unreasonable expectation of Pitino but also highly unlikely for this team.
Did I mention that I was wrong? My conclusion clearly turned out to be incorrect. Now, what I actually wrote about what it was going to take for the Gophers to make this type of remarkable turnaround was 100% spot on. But let’s look at what specific areas have showing significant improvement for the Gophers to be in the position they are today. A position of playing for a higher seed, the position of seeing how high they can finish in the Big Ten standings and the position of not having at all to sweat the bubble on Selection Sunday.
If the Gophers turn things around this year, it will not be because of added talent. That certainly helps, but if they are to jump 6 or 7 Big Ten wins it is going to come from significant improvement in execution on both ends of the floor. Last year’s offensive and defensive efficiency stats and ranks were ugly.
Off Efficiency - 100.3 (309th)
Def Efficiency - 103.1 (162nd)
Both of those numbers are bad and both will improve only by better execution on offense and better team defense.
Well guess what. The 2016-17 Gophers have shown DRAMATIC improvement in efficiency on both ends of the floor. See the charts below as exhibit A. Taking a look at possession efficiency on both defense (Y-axis) and offense (X-axis), you see how in the 2015-16 season the Gophers tended to play the bulk of their games unable to keep teams below 100.0 efficiency and they were unable to play above 100.0. That’s a recipe for a lot of losses.
Looking above, there were 13 games where the Gopher defense was bad (gave up over 100 points per 100 possessions) and the offense was bad too (unable to score at least 100 points per 100 possessions). Now look at this season’s stats.
See the dramatic shift from a slew of games with both bad offense and defense to being good/efficient on both ends of the floor. You’ll notice that there is one...ONE! game where they were bad on both ends of the floor. No surprise that game was the one game all season that just wasn’t competitive, losing by 18 at Michigan State.
Offensively there are only 7 games this where the offense failed to hit the 100 mark...last year they fell short of it 18 times. The turnaround is remarkable.
One more visualization to drive this point home. Below is showing the differential between your offensive and defensive efficiency. Last year the Gophers were playing with a 2.8 point deficit, this year they 17 point advantage (over 100 possessions, on average). Year over year that’s a 19.8 swing, which is easily the best improvement among the 6 power conference teams (15th in all of D1).
Improving on offense and defense as a whole is great. But how did they do that?
On defense it is pretty easy to identify that shot blocking has made a tremendous difference. Which in my opinion directly impacts our 3-point FG% Defense. This point became clear to me early in the season when the Gophers were hosting St. John’s. The Red Storm jumped out to a 22-9 lead as Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed combined for 4 early three pointers in the first 8 minutes of the game. The rest of that half the Red Storm had zero threes. Why? Because our guards were able to hold tight to shooters, allowing more penetration but knowing that Reggie Lynch was guarding the lane. Lynch had 9 blocked shots that game and the Gophers won that game by 6.
The key learning experience from that game is that we’ve got a guy (or two or three) who can guard the rim, allowing the guards to defend the three.
This graph is much simpler (arguably oversimplified) but it shows how our defensive 3-point % defense and block % have helped both improved quite a bit, arguably helping each other out.
Offensively the improvement is really a culmination of a little bit of everything. Turnovers are slightly down, we get to the free throw line a little bit more, we shoot threes better and we get offensive rebounds a little bit more often.
There isn’t really a good graphic for this offensive improvement and his name in Nate Mason.
This year is the year where Nate Mason went from a solid Big Ten point guard to the Gopher’s leader on the floor and one of the best in the Big Ten.
The offense is better all around. Adding Akeem Springs and Amir Coffey certainly help to give this team better offensive depth and balance. McBrayer improved. Reggie Lynch is a legit threat to score in the post, which is something we lacked a year ago. But the maturation of Nate Mason is what I most attribute this team’s offensive improvement to. He makes everyone better and has been a true “go-to” player in the clutch.
So what’s the moral of this story? The Gophers are better and I was very wrong about how good this team could be. March is going to be a lot of fun and this team is poised to be able to make a post-season run and really bring up the level of enthusiasm and expectations for Gopher basketball.