Last time we spoke, I mentioned Gophers’ fifth-year senior forward Dan Coleman’s verifiable on-court struggles and hypothetical off-court struggles. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea here: I was trying to be a little funny—inasmuch as the existential anguish of all college seniors is a little bit funny in its outsized, melodramatic way—but I really wasn’t trying to make light of whatever the guy is going through. Actually, I was kind of trying to allude to the sad fact that we, as fans, are pretty good at marginalizing the outside (i.e. “real”) lives and inner worlds of the athletes we follow. In general, we pay attention only to the extent that those lives/worlds can be turned into consumable tidbits—“his father taught him the meaning of hard work”; “his brother helped him keep things in perspective”—and lose interest after that. Recall, please, that life is pretty hard and that pain is real—even if you can do things like shoot a basketball or blow out birthday candles perched ten feet above the ground. Think of yourself at age 22 and then maybe have a little sympathy.
I am happy to report that Coleman showed much more spark in the Gophers’ home win against Penn State and road loss to Purdue. He didn’t shoot well in either game—4-12 and 4-11 respectively—and he made some amazing mistakes against Penn State (like fouling a three point shooter late) that, Coach Tubby fumed “almost cost us the game,” but I’m honestly happy to see him work up the gumption to put shots up at all. What’s more, he pulled down seven rebounds against Penn State and thirteen (along with three blocked shots) against the Boilermakers. So, Coleman's mercurial temperament will remain something of a mystery. I'm just glad he doesn't look quite so sad and lonely.
The Best Defense is a Good Defense
Actually, Coleman’s performances in those two games could stand in for those of the entire team. Energetic, but inconsistent; prone to spells of inspiring basketball and also jaw-dropping mistakes. Good enough to beat a Penn State team that was mediocre even before losing their best player for the season; not nearly good enough on the road against 16h-ranked Purdue.
In both games, the Gophers found themselves down early after indulging in their habitual problem of leaving three-point shooters wide open. And in both games, they were able to mount comebacks by bearing down on defense—playing more aggressively on screens, and rotating with better anticipation—and moving the ball on offense. The biggest difference was that, after Minnesota’s initial comeback, Penn State continued to allow the Gophers’ to execute their offense, while Purdue swallowed them up.
The Boilermakers revealed, by stark comparison, many of the shortcomings and inconsistencies of the Gophers’ own defense. They consistently and aggressively hedged screens (something the Gophers do only intermittently), preventing ballhandlers from making headway into the lane and forcing them to regroup. When the Gophers’ guards were able to penetrate the lane, the Boilermakers’ help defense swarmed to the ball. And if the Gophers managed to find a shooter left open by the collapsing D, Purdue recovered and rotated, preventing the open look. Purdue forced the Gophers to play at a frantic tempo, completely disrupting their offense; the U managed only three points in the first nine minutes of the second half. While Purdue had their own troubles scoring during this stretch, their defensive effort was enough to stake them to a double-digit lead, which they never relinquished.
Backup center Jonathan Williams has shown pretty impressive improvement over the past few weeks—so much so that I think it’s worth wondering if he should be taking some more of Spencer Tollackson’s minutes. Tollackson is the starter because he is a senior and because he is a decent scorer, averaging just over ten points per game in 23.9 minutes. Furthermore, for much of the season Williams was a liability on offense, showing no touch whatsoever around the rim in shooting 46.1% (which, for a big man, is not so good). But, as I’ve pointed out, Tollackson is a below average defender and a terrible rebounder—he averages only 3.87 boards per game in conference play, and has at least that many ripped out of his hands each game. The far more athletic Williams, on the other hand, can be a pretty fierce defender and rebounder; this month, he has averaged 4.8 rebounds in only 13 minutes per game. That’s one more board than Tollackson, in just over half the minutes. And, recently, Williams has shown much more confidence around the basket. Earlier in the season would receive a pass, dribble the ball as if waiting for a defender to challenge his shot and then offer up a timid layup attempt. In recent games, though, he has been much more decisive, converting many of those same situations into dunks and free throws.
Now, Tollackson’s shoots 53.3% from the floor, which would put him in the top ten in the conference. Here’s the thing, though: he doesn’t take nearly enough shots to even qualify for the ranking—the cutoff is five made shots per game, and Tollackson gets only 4.4 in Big Ten play. This means that, despite the disparity in shooting percentage between Williams and Tollackson, we’re talking about a difference of—maybe—one made basket per game. Put that up against Williams’s huge edge in rebounding and defense (the latter being not so statistically clear but plainly obvious to the naked eye) and…well, we’re talking about a lot of wasted possessions.
I realize that was totally nerdy and probably boring and I promise to never again use a calculator in any writing of any kind, especially in engaging in a thorough discussion of which mediocre center should get more minutes for a non-NCAA tournament-bound college basketball team. But: the Gophers have been solidly out-rebounded by good teams all year. They have some huge games coming up (plus the Big Ten tournament) if they hold out any hope for postseason play of any kind. Every little bit helps, is alls I’m saying.