For many, Tuesday’s momentous win over No. 1 Indiana inspired two reactions:
1. Sheer glee
2. Wait … why haven’t they been playing like this all along?
Indeed, the Gophers looked, in many ways, like a different team than we’ve seen for the past month and a half. They played their best, fullest game of the season and never let up.
To contemplate whether the Gophers can maintain that level of competitiveness and production, let’s first look at exactly were the difference-makers:
They played their own game: The Gophers scored 33 points or nearly 43 percent of their total scoring either off offensive rebounds or in transition. Compare that with just 13 points in those categories at Iowa and 16 at Ohio State. In the previous four games combined, those categories have accounted for just 25 percent of the Gophers production. But when they do those things, they can really keep things rolling – and the aren’t as subjected to their production in the half court, which still wasn’t always stellar on Tuesday.
Tubby Smith played a short bench: In the previous four games, the coach has played an average of six guys off the bench. On Tuesday, Smith limited it to four (Elliott Eliason, Maverick Ahanmisi, Andre Ingram and Mo Walker, with Walker playing just two minutes). As a result, the bench seemed able to slide into a rhythm better, and the same with the starters. The bench (16 points, 10 rebounds) actually had it’s most productive game of the conference schedule in terms of points (four) per reserve. Smith seemed to like the result, so maybe we’ll see more of that. The problem is, he’s fostered an environment where a lot of different reserves expect to play regularly. If he dramatically shortens the bench now, things could get a little messy.
Maverick Ahanmisi ran the offense for nearly half the game: This gave Andre Hollins the chance to focus mostly on scoring. It took a while for Hollins to ease into the new role, and it’s probably still an experimentation on some levels. But halfway through the second, the Memphis native went off in a way we haven’t seen him do regularly lately. Ahanmisi was able to contribute two 3-pointers and three assists on no turnovers. I think the results were definitely positive enough that the Gophers try it again.
They fed the post: Post players Trevor Mbakwe and Elliott Eliason demanded the ball and their teammates looked for them. What sounds so simple has been so often overlooked in the Gophers offense – but they were rewarded Tuesday, with an impressive 40 of their points coming in the paint. The Gophers continued to get the ball inside, even when the Hoosiers went zone, although Indiana didn’t really stay in that defense long enough to threaten or test the Gophers.
They played aggressively and they reacted: The Gophers have come out aggressively in a lot of games, so perhaps the most notable for Minnesota was the way they started the second half, immediately getting consecutive buckets at the basket by Mbakwe. Even as the Gophers fell back by eight points, they didn’t let up any in their attack or demeanor, which often takes a hit after things don’t go their way. The players drove to the basket – I thought Rodney Williams’ aggressiveness in that regard was particularly refreshing – they cut to the basket away from the ball, got more movement and used a lot of back screens to help get open. And the aggressiveness was critical when it came to turnovers as well. It wasn’t that the Gophers didn’t make blunders, but they reacted when they did, and they didn’t give up on loose balls or fumbles. They got back several that way.
Can the Gophers maintain these changes going forward? I don’t see why not – but it will require both the coaching staff and players to be aware of the importance of these factors.