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What Exactly Do We Have With Gopher Basketball?

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A 7-0 start requires additional reflection and some reexamination

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As crazy as it sounds, the 2021-2022 Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball team has nearly completed 25% of its season and has yet to experience the sting of defeat. As of this typing, they stand as one of 12 undefeated teams remaining from the pool of 358 Division I squads across the country. It’s certainly a strange position to be in considering the Gophers returned 7.9% of minutes played from last year’s squad, good for 343th in the nation, and have a first-year head coach who hadn’t led a team at any level until the first game this season against UMKC. Alas, here we are. But where exactly is here?

Before the season pundits nationally, locally, and universally all predicted a disastrous season for the Gophers, at least as it pertained to record. Even amidst the comfy confines of The Daily Gopher, writer and commenter alike were quick to say that this team was going to be bad, like... REEEEEAL BAD. You could only be considered cool if you could come up with some sly new way to talk about how bad the Gophers were going to be. Two conference wins bad! Zero conference wins bad!! Lucky to win five games overall bad!!! And, to be frank, all of that was pretty fair. There were literally ZERO expectations for this team because of the massive turnover as well as the perceived amount of talent that was brought in to fill a depleted roster decimated by the firing of a coach and the mass exodus of transfers (and a couple unfortunate injuries).

But a funny thing happened on the way to Asheville, Pittsburgh, and Starksville. While epic sonnets and poetic sagas will never be written about the November and first week of December the 2021-2022 Gophers had, they certainly carried themselves with far more aplomb than anyone could have expected. And, despite initial reactions to the roster’s composition, there are several players who have performed as perfectly serviceable Big Ten-level pieces.

Payton Willis has already played seasons in the SEC and Big Ten during his collegiate career. With four years of college basketball under his belt, including 120 games, he isn’t some scrub from Emporia State. He’s a player who has improved his three-point efficiency every year of his college career and currently carries an acceptable 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio for this season (and career overall). There are plenty of other Big Ten teams that he would start for an/or play a large swath of minutes. It would also appear that he has no problem being the “closer” for a team in a close game.

Jamison Battle has two years of experience in the Atlantic Ten. No, the A-10 isn’t the ACC but it’s also nothing to sneeze at. And he played a MASSIVE number of minutes for the Colonials of George Washington: 86.9% of all available minutes his freshman year and 79.8% of all available minutes his sophomore year. He’s no slouch; a lengthy shooter who can create offense in one-on-one situations as well as maintain efficiency at a high volume. Once again, an example of a player who would be starting on several Big Ten teams.

Eric Curry, a sixth year senior who has been slowed by injuries for a majority of his career, has excelled in the Big Ten before. While he may not have the spring he once had in his promising freshman season, way back in 2016-2017, his leadership, experience, and dedication to maintaining the defensive boards (serviceable 19.5% defensive rebound rate) has been a key cog in the early season success of this team. Yes, he has lost the elite athleticism that once made him a four-star recruit out of Arkansas but he embodies several key characteristics that a college basketball team requires to be successful. Would he start for other Big Ten squads? Probably not. But make no mistake, he is fully capable of playing within this conference, despite being undersized due to his intelligence and overall experience.

The next player I want to mention specifically is Luke Loewe. Many people can scoff at a fifth year senior transfer from William & Mary. Even I, the most cock-eyed optimist, won’t try to talk up the Colonial Athletic Association as some kind of secretly great conference. But, there’s something to be said about 79 starts, 107 games played, and boat load of experience as well as a firm understanding of role and limitations. Loewe, in just seven games, has already proven to have a firm grasp of what is required of him to make the team successful and has contributed a multitude of timely plays and decent perimeter defense.

I could almost copy and paste everything that I said about Loewe into a paragraph about Eylijah Stephens. A seasoned veteran of a lesser conference out east, in this case the Patriot League, Stephens has brought bountiful experience as well as superior role-understanding and efficient shooting to the starting five. Because he isn’t flashy and came from Lafayette, there was a perception that he wasn’t much of a player or at least he couldn’t compete in the Big Ten. But if he maintains an efficient three-point shot (45.2% this season thus far) with above-average defense, there’s no reason he wouldn’t be a perfectly capable role player in conference play.

All of that is to say that I think people, due to perception and a little bit of group think, have really unsold the overall quality of the the starters. There are no All-Big Ten performers in this starting five, but college basketball is often about fit and complementing the players on the floor around you. Now, before you think I’ve gone full homer, let me firmly establish that thus far, this team has beaten a single team in KenPom’s top 115. Being 7-0 at this juncture, while unexpected, doesn’t mean that the seven-man rotation of players averaging about 6’ 5.9” will be able to handle the rigors of the Big Ten. But being 7-0 with only three home games thus far on the schedule is certainly something to raise the collective eyebrows of Gopher Nation.

Despite their obvious lack of height, Coach Ben Johnson appears to have identified how to turn this roster physical short-coming in to an opportunity of optimized strategic focus. The team has employed a general abandonment of the offensive boards (literally last in the entire nation in offensive rebound rate per KenPom) in favor of limiting opposing transition play and getting the defense set. Furthermore, despite the lack of size, they have maintained a respectable defensive rebound rate (120th in the nation), doing their best to eliminate opponents’ second chances. Another way they have frustrated opponents on the defensive end is their lack of fouling. Opponents are only getting 13.8% of their points from the free-throw line (321st in the nation, so the Gophers are 37th in country at opposing teams points from the FT line) and have a .202 free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio (12th in the nation). Essentially, the Gophers aren’t fouling teams on defense and opponents aren’t getting opportunities for free points at the line.

One final defensive statistic of note from KenPom is that opponents are shooting 23.1% from three against the Gophers. That’s the second best mark in the ENTIRE COUNTRY. Now, part of this could be explained by luck due to opposing three-point percentage on open looks can vary, but I’d be interested to hear a wiser mind break down the Gophers’ defensive strategies to see if there is a concerted effort to push teams off the three-point line or coax them into less appealing three-point locations such as above the break.

A huge caveat to all of those statistics is of course the general level of play the Gophers have faced so far. No one is going to mistake the opening of the schedule as a murderer’s row of opponents. However, at this juncture, no one can say that Minnesota is incapable of beating a good team because Mississippi State, by most metrics, is in fact, a good team. Also, considering that game was in Starksville and the Gophers were missing one of their seven rotation players for its duration, it would seem that they just gave their best performance of the season while having room to perform even higher.

Look, Minnesota still ranks as the 90th most efficient team in the nation, ahead of only Penn State (91st), Rutgers (100th), and Nebraska (102nd) in the Big Ten. But they started the season at 119th without any one of these players having played together before. As their experience together starts to build and players become more familiar with their roles, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see some improvement throughout the season. One thing anyone who has watched Minnesota this season can attest to is the cohesiveness of the roster, displayed by the proficiency in close games so far this season. Four of the seven games thus far have been decided in the last two minutes of the game. One could argue that the Gophers have been exceedingly lucky to have come out on top in all four of those scenarios and I think there’d be a bit of truth to that. But there is also something to be said for how the team has handled these situations and performed when the game has been on the line.

The overall point I’m trying to make in this somewhat unstructured stream-of-consciousness is that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the “lost season” it was proclaimed to be before they had taken the court. In all likelihood, this Gopher squad will be thumped routinely in the Big Ten due to an utter lack of depth and size. But of all the major sports, college basketball tends to favor those teams that have some combination of talent, quality coaching, and cohesiveness. The returns thus far indicate that we have two-and-a-half of those characteristics in hand already.

While this can still be most reasonably recognized as a first-step in an overall rebuilding process that doesn’t mean that this team can’t also continue to over-achieve in the face of underwhelming expectations. It will be interesting to track their progress over the course of a challenging Big Ten slate but the early returns certainly indicate that there is more to this supposed rag-tag bunch of transfers and also-rans than meets the eye.