As you might have guessed from previous posts, I am not exactly enamored of college basketball’s culture of celebrity coaches. When I watch a college game what I usually see is a bunch of young, talented dudes playing really hard. What people like Dick Vitale or Billy Packer often seem to see, however, is some manifestation of the coach’s (very likely some fellow Republican they play golf with in the offseason) personality or “system”. When a player makes a mistake Packer, in particular, will adopt a schoolmarm-ish tone and chide the kid for his foolishness. But if a team or player does something right? Must be well coached. (I could yell at you about Packer for pages. He's probably the worst I've seen in describing black players in terms of athleticism and physical prowess while reserving such attributes as character and intelligence for whites. He has used the term "playground mentality" in all seriousness. He is a self-righteous know-it-all. And boy, does he love coaches.)
On Wednesday the Gophers faced Northwestern, a perennially undermanned team but one that has given them fits in recent years. Last year’s embarrassing 15-point home loss, for instance, was one of the most awful games I’ve ever seen. But in this year’s contest, the Gophers did what one is supposed to do against lesser teams: they controlled the game and won big. Two things, in particular, impressed me about their 82-63 victory. In the first five minutes, Northwestern had success creating open shots against the Gophers’ man-to-man defense. Their so-called “Princeton offense" eschews typical inside-outside dynamics, instead using all five players to cut and set screens. This can be particularly troubling for opposing big men because rather than defending a posting-up center as they are accustomed to, they now have to run all over the floor fighting through picks. Lumbering Gopher center Spencer Tollackson was clearly not up to this task and his assignment, the sharp shooting Kevin Coble, was regularly open for jumpers. Smith quickly recognized this mismatch and immediately switched to a zone. Here’s the impressive thing: many teams (last year’s Gophers in particular) become passive in a zone defense, but this year’s squad was even more aggressive after the switch. They trapped and closed out with intensity, creating turnovers and forced shots; from that point on, Northwestern was never again able to create space on offense.
And the second thing. After the game Smith spoke of teaching his team to play with an “even temper”; not wildly excited when things are going well, not dejected when things aren’t. When Northwestern jumped out to their early 20-14 lead with their deceptive offense and matchup zone, one could easily have expected the Gophers—who had, remember, never beaten this team at home—to hang their head with that sinking “oh no, not again” feeling. But instead they buckled down, becoming even more intense on defense and improving their offensive execution. They went on a 22-2 run and never really looked back. This, coupled with their gritty effort against Michigan State, speaks to a fundamental shift in the culture and temperament of the team. As much as it pains me to say it, they must be well coached.