When the Big Ten season started, the Gophers appeared to be vulnerable to the following strategies:
-Hit threes against a squad that allowed its opponents to shoot 36.7 percent from beyond the arc (10th in the Big Ten on Dec. 27).
-Neutralize their size advantage on offense by sending their bigs to the free throw line (62.4 percent free throw shooting percentage entering their first conference game at Wisconsin Dec. 28, the worst mark in the league).
-Smother Blake Hoffarber (36 of his 54 field goals were three-pointers in the team's first 12 games).
In their last six games, however, the Gophers have challenged the previously established formulas. Their Big Ten opponents have made 34.8 percent of their three-point attempts (third in the league). They're shooting 73.5 percent from the free throw line (sixth in the Big Ten). And Hoffarber has found ways to score inside the three-point line.
What's behind the improvements?
1. Better three-point defense - The Gophers lead the Big Ten in blocks (7.17). And according to KenPom.com, they have the 11th-best two-point field goal percentage defense in the country (41 percent). They're locking up the paint and forcing teams to shoot tougher shots from outside (34.8 three-point field goal percentage defense, third in the Big Ten). Entering Sunday's matchup, Iowa averaged 15.7 three-point attempts per game through four conference games. Against the Gophers, they took 19 and made six. While porous defense has left the Gophers' three-point line open in the past, Al Nolen and Rodney Williams are helping them put more pressure on the perimeter. Nolen isn't 100 percent yet. But he's more active on defense. He leads the league with 2.33 steals per game. Williams has been a surprise. He's struggled on offense this year. But the sophomore's commitment to defense has created a new weapon for the Gophers on that end of the floor. His versatility, length and athleticism have helped the Gophers limit players such as Ohio State's Jon Diebler (3 for 8) and Purdue's E'Twaun Moore (2 for 14).
2. Better free-throw shooting - You either make free throws or you miss them. No need for any fancy formulas or analysis. And this team couldn't make them. Tubby Smith didn't have any answers. Players stayed after practice and that didn't help. Just a few weeks after earning "liability" status from the charity stripe, the Gophers have made strides. And the improvement is mainly attributed to their post players making more of the 15-footers and Hoffarber getting to the foul line. Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson have gone 49 for 68 (72 percent) from the free throw line in Big Ten play. They were a combined 108 for 180 (60 percent) from the charity stripe in the nonconference season. Hoffarber averaged 2.25 free throw attempts in the squad's first 12 games (23 for 27). He's gone 14 for 19 in six conference games, an average of 3.1free throw attempts.
3. A more versatile Hoffarber - During the nonconference season, Hoffarber scored 167 points in 12 games. Here's the breakdown of that sum: 65 percent of his points came from threes, 21 percent off two-pointers and 14 percent from free throws. He's scored 82 points in six Big Ten games. Here's the breakdown: 44 percent off threes, 39 percent off two-pointers and 17 percent from free throws. Hoffarber has found new ways to score. His 26-point breakout against Purdue showcased the new wrinkles in his game. As Matt Painter learned, Hoffarber is no longer a one-dimensional threat. Now that he's taking more shots from inside the three-point line, he's more difficult to defend. He moves more. And he's a more vital part of the offense. With Devoe Joseph gone, Hoffarber is the squad's only true perimeter option (Maverick Ahanmisi, however, is 5 for 12 from beyond the arc). And he's making opponents work harder to neutralize him.