In many ways, the 2013-14 Gophers men’s basketball team has been predictable.
With a limited roster, it has displayed the expected weaknesses of a rebuilding team — an inconsistent frontcourt, occasional sloppiness, lapses on defense — and has correspondingly taken a couple of tough losses.
But so far, coach Richard Pitino’s debut season with the Gophers hasn’t been defined by tedium, but rather by the on-court surprises that have followed his hiring.
Some of those curiosities are hard to measure — for instance, the way the players respond to his personality and coaching techniques. Others are clear through a glance at the statistics.
Here are five surprising stats from the Gophers’ season so far:
1. Elliott Eliason has 26 blocks
Eliason had 37 all of last season, but then he averaged only 13.7 minutes a game compared with his current 24.2. The center has made great use of the extra opportunity, using his size to play the role of rim protector — production that is greatly needed on a thin Minnesota team. Eliason is averaging 2.7 blocks a game and — call him crazy — Pitino is not surprised. “It sounds silly, but no. Casey Stanley, our video guy, told me at the beginning of the year he did a breakdown of [kenpom.com] and all those analytics stuff, and Elliott was one of the best per-minute shot-blockers out there. So that doesn’t surprise me.” Eliason’s blocks-per-minute rate actually has gone up notably, from .08 a minute last year to .11 a minute this year.
2. Three-point production
Sure, the Gophers’ shooting from the field has been inconsistent at times, but their significant improvement in production from behind the arc is hard to deny. Through 10 games, the Gophers have actually allowed one more three-pointer by opponents (56) than through the first 10 games last year (55), but they have nearly doubled their output, connecting on 80 shots from downtown, compared with just 48 a year ago. They have 24 more three-pointers than their opponents. That change in execution is truly impressive.
3. A positive assist-to-turnover ratio
The Gophers managed a 1.07-to-1 ratio a year ago, but it was an area where they really struggled, dragged down by their ballhandling. This season, the Gophers have certainly had some ugly turnovers, but they have come more in spurts — a handful of bad games in that regard — rather than as an overarching trend. Currently, Minnesota is maintaining a 1.29-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which wasn’t helped by the output against New Orleans on Saturday — one of three games this season where the Gophers’ turnovers outnumbered their assists. “That’s another thing that we’ve been much better at than I thought we’d be,” Pitino said.
4. Defensive rebounds up over last season
Of course, there are a couple of caveats: Last year’s Gophers were very good at getting offensive rebounds — and things tend to peter off a bit in Big Ten play. But it’s worth noting what Minnesota has done on the boards despite the losses of Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams and despite a frontcourt that has had no depth to speak of all season. The Gophers are averaging 24 defensive rebounds a game — through all of last year they averaged 23.7. “It feels good,” Mo Walker said. “I think a lot of it has to do with this playing style — we’re getting up a lot more shots than we did last year, so that gives us more opportunities to rebound.”
5. 8.8 steals a game
It was a big part of the game that Pitino wanted to bring to Minnesota, and the Gophers have done well in harassing offenses into turnovers with their press early on. The Gophers not only lead the Big Ten in steals, they do it convincingly. The team with the next-most steals is Nebraska, which has 7.6 a game. “We’ve done a pretty good job of it,” Pitino said. “Our goal is nine or 10. They’ve been aggressive, they’ve pressured the ball. … It all starts with our guards at the front of the press.”