There was no better way to describe it: Florida State looked confused.
The Seminoles had conquered some strong defenses through the early season schedule, including VCU’s notorious “havoc,” and they had played closely with several others, losing to No. 15 Florida by a single point, and to No. 22 Michigan by two in overtime.
There should have been no real surprises. Florida State had seen plenty of full-court pressure and played well against versions with much more talented players than the Gophers had to offer.
And yet still, with the clock winding down on Tuesday night at Williams Arena, Florida State creeping within five points, the Seminoles still seemed flustered, shoved off-balance all night by the array of defenses that Gophers coach Richard Pitino threw their way.
“I think we’ve played great D,” Austin Hollins said after the Gophers win. “We forced a bunch of turnovers and we got points off of that, and that gives us a lot of energy. And that gets us going offensively as well.”
In a year in which the Gophers lack a roster that stacks up well against the hearty Big Ten, the newcomer coach has made that focus on defense Minnesota’s bread and butter — mixing a full-court press and a 2-3 zone in with some man-to-man, depending on the situation.
At times, it’s been obvious that the Gophers are learning an entirely new system. Opponents have beaten the press for easy scores at the basket, and teams have slipped inside the Gophers’ zone to do the same.
But overall, the defense has been the most impressive thing about this new Gophers team. Pitino has taken the roster he was dealt and made the most of it, getting his players to exert a level of effort and execution that was missing a year ago. He’s not afraid to adjust on the fly, or to ditch his defensive plan if the situation calls for it.
As a result, it’s filled some holes — keeping the Gophers in competition despite the limited personnel.
The Florida State and Syracuse games were good examples of that — with Minnesota neutralizing the Seminoles’ pair of 7-foot centers and staying toe-to-toe with the Orange despite its great length and size.
“Richard has done a tremendous job putting that system in in a very short period of time, and they completely understand it and they handle it,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of Pitino at the Maui Invitational. “They had a very tough defense. They pressured the guards and then they forced you into the bigs and their bigs were playing solid, strong Big Ten basketball.”
There have been moments of weakness as well. The Gophers beat Richmond in mid-November only after laying off their press, which was getting carved by the Spiders guards. Minnesota had similar problems against Arkansas and Chaminade, in the first half, in Maui. At times, the Gophers’ zone has looked helpless in stopping teams that decide to force the ball inside.
“We’ve still got a long way to go in that regard, with the press,” Pitino said, pointing out that the Gophers are shooting 42.5 percent from the field, but are holding opponents to 42.1 percent. “I think the reason why defensively that number is higher than it needs to be is because of rotating out of the press. I think that’s been our biggest issue.”
According to stats site kenpom.com, the Gophers have the 26th best defensive steal percentage in the nation through nine games, swiping the ball away from their opponents on 11.9 percent of possessions. Minnesota is averaging 8.3 steals a game.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of Minnesota’s defense is harder to measure.
Although the Gophers — who are forcing an average of 14.4 turnovers a game — won’t stop every drive, and won’t nab 10 steals every night, they’re hoping they can keep opponents out of their comfort zones enough to make most games close.
“I keep saying we’re not just going to be able to turn teams over 20, 30 times — that’s not realistic,” Pitino said. “But can you take them out of what they want to do? That’s more than anything what we’re looking at.”