With 16 seconds on the clock Sunday, Drew Crawford went in for a layup, hoping to give Northwestern a boost they were struggling to find.
But with the Gophers closing in the paint, the Wildcats’ leading scorer clanked the shot. It was Crawford’s 15th attempt of the night, and his 14th miss.
Whether Minnesota can make moments like that a trend could be the difference between an NCAA tournament berth and settling for the NIT.
To call this year’s Gophers defense rough around the edges would be kind. Minnesota has struggled throughout the conference schedule to defend perimeter shots, to block out on the defensive end, and with fouling.
But after Sunday’s game at Northwestern — an ugly game in which the Gophers had 17 turnovers but rode their defense to a victory — a new pattern appears to be emerging.
On the strength of solid performances in its past two wins — over Indiana and at Northwestern — Minnesota has pulled itself out of the Big Ten defensive basement. After spending most of the league schedule at No. 12 in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, the Gophers have risen to No. 10 in the rankings, which essentially measure points allowed per possession.
“We’ve played much better defense,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “The numbers may not indicate it as much, but … [on Sunday] that was the most fundamentally sound we’ve been all year.”
Part of the change has come in simply making smarter decisions on defense, and staying out of foul trouble.
Against Indiana, Minnesota sent the Hoosiers to the line just 16 times. The Gophers slipped up at Wisconsin, allowing 36 trips to the stripe but got back on track at Northwestern, which had just 14 free-throw attempts.
The insertion of Daquein McNeil into the regular rotation has also helped because the freshman — who originally committed to Pitino at Florida International — plays a brand of defense well beyond his years.
Sunday, he combined with Austin Hollins in keeping Crawford off-balance, a result that cannot be understated.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Hollins said. “Knowing that he’s one of the better players on the team and knowing that that’s my matchup. … What you want to do is just make it tough for them.’’
The Gophers have been technically better in other ways as well. With Pitino starting to use the 2-3 zone less, as a change of pace and a tool for confusing offenses, Minnesota has found more success with its man-to-man defense. Correspondingly, the team has been better at closing out on opponents and stopping the attack in the paint.
Three-point defense is still a work in progress (Minnesota has allowed opponents to go 17-for-48, or 35.4 percent from that range in the last three games) but overall the Gophers defense has significantly improved.
“I think both the zone and the man are coming along,” Austin Hollins said. “Neither one of them are perfect, but I think they’re both coming along.”
A lot of that is simply effort — oftentimes the Gophers have started the game getting stops and playing solid defense, only to fall apart for extended sloppy stretches.
Hollins said perhaps that message sank in most dramatically after the loss at Wisconsin last Thursday, when the Gophers — who had soundly beaten the Badgers a couple weeks earlier at their place — had a slew of defensive breakdowns that proved too much to overcome.
“Guys are coming together and realizing that if we want to win games, we’re going to have to defend,” he said.
As the Gophers embark on their final stretch of five conference games, the continued improvement of the defense will be critical in coming up with three more victories, probably what is needed to receive a postseason NCAA bid.
The Gophers have allowed opponents to shoot 45.5 percent from the field in losses, but just 38.5 percent in their wins.
“We’re one of those teams that learn from our mistakes really well,” Andre Hollins said. “We have a bad game and we’ll come back in practice and have an amazing practice. … We’ve been working hard and hard work pays off.”