No longer can Richard Pitino deny that the Gophers men’s basketball team has a problem defending beyond the arc. The numbers are too stacked against it to believe otherwise.
The Gophers are 4-0 and improved offensively, but the team is worse at defending the three-point shot than it was a year ago.
Entering Tuesday’s game against Alabama A&M, the Gophers rank 12th in the Big Ten and 333rd out of 351 Division I teams in three-point percentage defense. Opponents are making almost every other three-point shot (44.7 percent). Last season, they led the Big Ten and ranked 15th nationally holding teams to 30.9 percent shooting from long distance.
“I thought our defense was bad in the first half,” Pitino said of Sunday’s 92-64 victory over Western Carolina. “At some point you’re going to have to get burnt. Alabama had a kid [John Petty] who hit 10 threes the other day. So you’re going to have to trust the defense behind you. You’re going to have to get your hand up. At some point, it’s not just [bad] luck, it’s bad defense.”
Junior guard Dupree McBrayer pointed to bad effort in practice when the Gophers have been working on three-point defense drills.
“We do a lot of drills in practice, so we just have to take those drills more serious,” McBrayer said. “I think we’re kind of going through the motions. Now that teams hit 14, 11 and 11 threes on us [at home], I think we’re going to come with a different mind-set in practice.”
Opponents who play at Williams Arena have been shooting the three as if it were their home court, especially in the first half of games.
South Carolina Upstate, Niagara and Western Carolina lost by an average margin of 23 points, but they shot a combined 45 percent from three (36-for-80). That included USC Upstate tying for the second-most threes ever by a Gophers opponent with 14 in the season opener.
“Guys know we’re not playing good three-point defense,” Pitino said. “So they’re just shooting a lot of threes.”
Why care, if the Gophers are winning by double digits anyway? The competition gets better, quickly. After Alabama A&M, the Gophers face Massachusetts on Friday and Alabama on Saturday in the Barclays Center Classic in New York.
The Crimson Tide hit 16 three-pointers in its 104-67 victory over Alabama A&M, a game that included Petty’s school-record 10-for-13 shooting from beyond the arc. Petty and Collin Sexton, two of the top freshman guards in the nation, combined to score 55 points.
Pitino said his players are dropping their hands while guarding shooters. He wants them to be more active on the perimeter and trust that they have Reggie Lynch, the nation’s leading shot-blocker, behind them.
All five starters return from last year’s NCAA tournament team that prided itself on strong three-point defense. But the Gophers lost Akeem Springs to graduation and Eric Curry to a season-ending knee injury. Springs was a part-time starter and arguably the team’s best perimeter defender. Even at 6-foot-9, Curry was able to get out and contest jump shots and defend ball screens.
Freshman guards Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris and junior forward Davonte Fitzgerald still are getting used to Pitino’s defense and system.
“We got new guys, so we just have to keep them up to speed,” McBrayer said. “We were winning because of our three-point field goal defense and rebounding [last year]. We as a team … we need to make an emphasis on it, so it doesn’t hurt us down the line.”