There has been much talk about whether new Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s press has really been effective, and whether it can be going forward.
After all, at times, it looks like a bit of a liability, at times the Gophers have to ditch it. At times, Pitino opts instead for man-to-man or a 2-3 zone.
But the answer can be viewed in the steals column of the Gophers’ stats.
Minnesota is averaging 8.6 a game, best in the Big Ten. That’s 1.2 steals a game more than the Gophers averaged all year last season, but early, they’ve made it count more by limiting turnovers on the other end. Currently, the Gophers are fourth in the Big Ten in turnover margin. Last year, Minnesota opponents had 7.6 steals a game to cancel out the Gophers’ 7.4.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of it … our goal is 9 or 10 [steals per game],” Pitino said. [The players have] been aggressive, they’ve pressured the ball, they’ve done a good job. It all starts with our guards at the front of the press.”
New point guard DeAndre Mathieu has been essential to the team’s press, and he sets the tone for the energy at the top. The JUCO transfer, who leads the team with 23 steals is extremely quick and tough to get past, and he loves to throw his hands in passing lanes, snatch the offering and zip off in the other direction. When the Gophers are able to harass teammates into rushed possessions, they’ve had success; the times they’ve struggled are when the press gets lax and opponents can blow past it or just patiently make their way up the court.
“We need an aggressive Andre Hollins, we need an aggressive Austin Hollins, we need an aggressive DeAndre Mathieu,” Pitino said. “If they can speed guys up, then we can start our press. If they don’t do that, we’re not very effective.”
One of the keys right now is that the Gophers know when to NOT use it. Pitino has proven willing to switch out if his players aren’t successfully making the opponent uncomfortable, rather than blindly stick to his signature system element. That has only helped contribute to opponent discomfort through the early season, with three different defenses being available at any time.
Of course, there is plenty of room for improvement, and Pitino is quick to acknowledge that, pointing out weaknesses of both the press and the zone, which has allowed better opponent three-point shooting than he would like.
“I think we’ve got to just continue to improve,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s really, really weak. I just think technique-wise we’ve got to get better … We’ve just got to get great defensively. We’re good right now, we’ve got to get great.”