Ann Arbor Rock City
Well, the last two weeks have been pretty instructive for the Gophers. First, they gave both Indiana and Michigan State scares at home. Then they looked fairly awful in a 76-60 road loss to a pretty good (but by no means great) Ohio State team. Then, just when they desperately needed a win, they came through with a good all-around performance on the road at Michigan. The unevenness of their play might make the Gophers seem a touch enigmatic but really, there is no mystery here. The fact is the Gophers are a very average basketball team. They do what average teams do: they lose to good teams and beat bad teams. When they play very well, it can almost look like they are almost as good as somebody who is actually good. When they don’t, they look pretty bad. This is totally ok.
The Gophers’ effort on Thursday night was refreshing. They played with an intensity and sense of purpose befitting a team with veteran leaders and one that was desperate for a victory. The team has played with tremendous defensive energy all season but that energy was at a new high against Michigan, especially in the first half. Their ball pressure completely suffocated the Wolverines, creating turnovers, blocking shots and denying them any quality looks (Michigan shot only 37% and turned the ball over 17 times). Now, Michigan is a pretty bad basketball team. If it weren’t for their freshman star Manny Harris (who led all scorers with 19 points on Thursday, on 6-14 shooting) they would be pretty hopeless. Still, the Gophers did what you are supposed to do with bad teams—smother them early and give them no reason to hope. Michigan’s furious late rally notwithstanding, the Gophers were dominant.
That said, the Gophers’ essential mediocrity shone through in a number of ways, most noticeably on offense. They did shoot an amazing 59% from the field but negated much of their own defensive success with 17 turnovers. And although they did play extremely aggressive defense—or perhaps as a by-product of that aggressiveness—they committed some bad fouls in the process, sending the Wolverines to the line 24 times.
I’ve also noticed that the Gophers’ defensive pressure doesn’t always translate into easy baskets. It was strange to watch them completely dominate Michigan and yet hold only eight to10 point leads for much of the game. They never put together that really commanding run that would cement the game. This has been true in their losses to Indiana and Michigan as well; even in stretches in which they were turning the other team over with regularity, they weren’t always scoring well off of that pressure. Against Michigan, the Gophers did get some baskets in transition but just as often they seemed out of control on the break, turning the ball over and forcing shots. I know this all probably seems like quibbling and that one shouldn’t really complain about a double-digit Big Ten road win. But…I mean, Michigan is terrible and the Gophers owned them the whole night. But their execution on offense was pretty shaky for large stretches and they never could manage to turn a big lead into a blowout.
Reform, Not Revolution
As promised, we are starting to see the Gophers’ rotation thin out a bit. Rather than the two-tiered platoon system we’ve gotten used to, against Michigan it looked much more like the traditional arrangement of a starting five with a few key subs. Probably in response to the team’s poor offensive showing against Ohio State, Tubby chose to leave his most consistent scorers on the floor for more minutes—at the expense of Jamal Abu-Shamala and Blake Hoffarber, in particular. This strategy seems to have paid off pretty well as the Gophers saw better production from Coleman and McKenzie and a huge boost in the team’s shooting percentage (although, I have to say, I’m not sure way Hoffarber, the team’s best three-point shooter, only saw two minutes of playing time. Maybe Tubby has finally decided that his one-dimensional game has become a hindrance). And Damian Johnson’s increased minutes mean that the team doesn’t lose much on the defensive end. But while this seemed to give the Gophers more continuity on offense, it didn’t really seem the cure them of their weird sloppiness with the ball.
The fact is, the Gophers have something of a void at point guard. It’s not that they have bad players at that position—in fact, Al Nolen and McKenzie could be great contributors on any team in the conference. But none of their backcourt players are true ball-handling/distributing point guards. Lawrence Westbrook and Nolen are both terrific defensive players (and Westbrook had a nice 15 points on 6-10 against Michigan), but neither one is really ready to run an offense. And McKenzie is really more of a scorer and tends to make mistakes when asked to shoulder the ballhandling duties (five of those turnovers on Thursday were his).
McKenzie is a pretty interesting player actually. He is the Gophers’ only truly dangerous one-on-one player. He has shown the ability—against Michigan and Michigan State—to carry the offense with his array of threes, nasty step-back jumpers and drives. If he were four inches taller and could play the two, he would probably be one of the better scorers in the country. But his small size means that he is a point-guard, a position that exposes many of his weaknesses (his average passing skills, his mistake-prone ball-handling). And—possibly because he is out of position, possibly because he consciously defers to his teammates, possibly because his focus wavers throughout a game—he tends to disappear for long stretches of games. At home against Michigan State, for instance, he single-handedly kept Minnesota in the game with his second half scoring, finishing with 20 points. The thing is, all of those points came in the second half; in fact, he only took one shot in the first twenty minutes and didn’t actually score his first points until the 14:37 mark of the second half. Weird, right?