There are two very clear and incongruent things with this current Gopher basketball team.
1 - They are a hodge podge of transfers from mid-major programs that on paper are not as talented as the rest of the Big Ten. There is good reason why they were universally predicted to finish last in the Big Ten with struggles along the way.
2 - They are currently undefeated having won on the road over an ACC team and a good SEC team and are receiving votes for the top 25. There’s even talk surfacing about potential postseason play (albeit the NIT).
So how can one reconcile these two things?
It really comes down to what appears to be coaching philosophy and clear points of emphasis by Coach Ben Johnson. I have written several times before about how certain coaches have very clear systems that intend to maximize their talent by maximizing possessions (honestly, I think those two links are worth the read).
Maybe they work hard to force turnovers and crash offensive rebounds as a way to gain possessions (Bob Huggins is a great example of this). Maybe they are precise with the few possessions they do have (think Virginia or Wisconsin). There are many ways to make sure you are either efficient with your own possession or you do what you can to accumulate more possessions (quality or quantity?). Whatever your plan, you need one and you need to execute it. This was a huge frustration I had with Richard Pitino, there didn’t seem to be a clear plan (see the first link from above).
So what is Ben Johnson doing to give his team the best chance to win games?
Well through 7 games there are some very clear things that are being emphasized and executed. It is one thing to have a plan, it is another to actually execute it. And so far what is being taught is also being executed AND it is resulting in wins. This is all very encouraging news (more on this later). Here is what the Gophers are going well and why they are currently 7-0.
1 - They don’t turn the ball over.
When you are perhaps not as athletically gifted as your opponent, you need to make sure you are not gifting them possessions. Turnovers will absolutely kill you when you are supremely talented, they hurt even more when you are not the favored team on the floor. The ball is the program, right? If the Gophers had gone down to Mississippi State and turned the ball over without getting shots, they would have lost by double-digits. Instead they turned the ball over on only 6% of their possessions. Which is an incredibly low number. At Pitt it was 11.6%, also a very low number. For the season they rank 13th in the country in offensive turnover%.
On the flip side, they don’t force very many either. This is on purpose. To generate turnovers, you have to apply pressure. When you apply pressure you risk giving up easy baskets. So many games come down being within a possession or two in the final minute. If throughout the game you give up just a couple easy baskets, then a 4-point deficit late is now 8. One of those scenarios you need a little luck to come back, the other you have almost zero margin for error. Or your 4-point lead is now zero and how you play out the final seconds is very different.
Ben Johnson is clearly emphasizing that you don’t turn the ball over and they are not going out of their way to force turnovers. Instead they will make sure they get a shot up on offense and they will defend so you have work for all of your shots.
2 - They don’t care about offensive rebounding.
Also known as getting back on defense.
This is another example of not giving the opponent anything easy. The Gophers are very nearly the worst team in the country at offensive rebounding. Currently they rank 357th out of 358 teams in offensive rebounding%, a metric showing how many chances you get at getting extra shots on offense. Is this bad? Is this because we don’t have good enough players? Does this indicate that we can’t rebound?
Yes and no.
There is no doubt that we are lacking athleticism, size and depth in the frontcourt. But there is an emphasis on giving up the rebound to ensure that all 5 guys are getting back to play half-court defense. The risk with going hard for offensive rebounds is that you may give up transition baskets the other way.
Coach Johnson’s quote after Luke Loewe tipped in the game-winner over Pitt was very telling.
“That was a play we drove for EJ, get to his right hand, and you hope on those plays that you are able to get something at the rim. I thought he did a great job playing through contact and he got to the rim. We just told the guys, we have to be all out. We don’t normally crash offensively, but when it’s time to win a game you have to be all out. Luke [Loewe] made a great play with a great read and was able to tip it in.”
There is no doubt that they are giving defensive rebounds to the opponent with the intent of getting back. Perhaps this is a Dave Thorson philosophy. Colorado State over the last few years was also very bad at offensive rebounding. I don’t know where this is stemming from, but there is zero doubt that it is intentional.
3 - They make threes and they defend threes.
The three point shot is so critical in the college game today. The 2021-22 Gophers are handling threes on both ends of the floor very well.
Remember the crazy stat from the last couple years of the Pitino era? His teams regularly took a LOT of threes and made very few of them. Ranking near the top of the Big Ten in attempts while simultaneously ranking near the bottom in % made. To make matters worse, they often were not very good at defending the three very well.
Last year’s Gophers...
- 86th in 3s attempted
- 339th in % made
- 256th in defensive % made
This year’s Gophers
- 183rd in attempts
- 79th in % made
- 2nd in defensive % made
They are taking better shots, they are making more and they are preventing the defense from making threes at a high percentage. The difference from last year to this year is stark.
Now, with that said, I’ve always been a little wary of pointing to defensive 3pt% as a metric. I question just how much that is a controllable stat, at least not without seriously compromising your def 2pt% (giving up layups by guarding the 3pt line aggressively). But so far this formula is working very well for this year’s Gophers.
That is the overall formula for this team. And when you add all of this up you have a team that takes care of the ball, gets back on defense and is making their open threes at a decent rate. It isn’t a sexy formula but most nights it is going to keep you in games and this is how we are undefeated.
Are there areas to improve? Yes, for sure. Earlier in the year they were pretty good at defensive rebounding. That has suffered lately and it is really (REALLY) important. They don’t give the ball way, they play good half-court defense but if they give their opponent extra shots they are going to get killed by good teams.
Also, their interior defense is not great. When they face more Big Ten teams with good big men, they need to be much better at defending. I fear that what John Hugley did to the Gophers is a bad omen for what is to come.
But I have always been looking at this season as one where this roster is limited anyway. Eventually talent always matters. Eric Curry and Jamison Battle are doing their best inside, but Kofi Cockburn, Hunter Dickinson and others like them in the Big Ten are going to be really difficult to stop.
The current plan, the apparent system is working very well at maximizing the talent that is currently available. And this is currently my favorite thing about Ben Johnson. This cannot be emphasized enough.
Ben Johnson is emphasizing a system that is best for his current roster. He is not only teaching this plan but he is doing so in a way that the players are hearing and then executing. These are really good signs for a coach who is in his first season as a head coach.
We really have no idea if this is what we should expect in future seasons. Will the plan remain the same regardless of talent? Is this the system and CBJ will recruit to THIS system? Or will it change a little as more athletically gifted players begin to be added to the roster? What will the offense look like when there’s a good scoring threat in the post? We don’t know, but the fact that he is maximizing talent and is able to teach what he wants to be executed is a very good sign.
This year’s team is limited and they will be exposed in the Big Ten. They will also win some games they are not supposed to win because this current style of play is intended to keep them in games till the end. Enjoy the season my friends, it may not be a display of elite athleticism but it is a display of competent coaching. This is encouraging.