One thing is as clear now as it was when the Gophers were losing eight of 11 games: The half-court offense will never be Minnesota’s bread and butter.
But when they find themselves needing half-court baskets — an inevitable scenario in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments — Gophers coach Tubby Smith has decided to make things as simple as possible.
“I think we went back to the fundamentals, No. 1,” Smith said. “We sort of narrowed what we’re doing offensively as well. We limited what they could do with the ball.”
That experiment has been beneficial — so much so that Smith hinted at starting guard Julian Welch and forward Andre Ingram at Nebraska on Wednesday. Those two started on senior day Saturday against Penn State, when the Gophers simply got the ball inside and overwhelmed the Nittany Lions.
Even so, the Gophers have been succeeding mainly in spite of its half-court problems: Against Indiana, Minnesota scored nearly half of its points by way of offensive rebounds and off the fast break.
But a team can’t get away without some sort of functional half-court offense in this league. So in the victory over the then-No. 1 Hoosiers, Smith also relied heavily on the flex offense — basically a stripped-down offense that emphasizes constant movement by everyone and lots of back and down screens — a system the Gophers used effectively late last season when they went on a run in the NIT.
The flex can be successful because the cuts and screens are easy to remember and the philosophy essentially makes everyone’s role the same. And because movement can be more easily anticipated, it can help to cut down on poor ballhandling, perhaps the Gophers’ biggest weakness.
The fewer the turnovers, the more opportunities the Gophers have to work the ball into the paint, and the better chances for Minnesota to slow down the opponent and more effectively utilize their own transition game.
“We did things that we haven’t done a great job of doing in the past,” junior guard Austin Hollins said of the Indiana game. “We got some fast-break points, we were getting it in the post a lot more. … Coach stresses a lot playing inside-out, and that’s what we’ve got to do to put pressure on the defense.”
With a flex offense making it not as necessary to have Andre Hollins at the helm, the Gophers have used the talented-but-inconsistent sophomore off the ball more often, getting valuable minutes from either Welch or Maverick Ahanmisi at point guard. That implementation has given the Gophers another ballhandler to run the team while freeing up Hollins for what he’s best suited to do: shoot and score.
“[Coach] wants me out in transition because I’ll be harder to guard when I’m without the ball,” said Hollins of the adjustment, which he said allows him to be more aggressive. “It’s just a different lineup, a different look, makes me a little more dangerous because teams have to worry about me coming off screens instead of distributing the ball.”
As a side effect, both Ahanamisi (six points, three assists, no turnovers against Indiana) and Welch (10 points, seven assists, no turnovers against Penn State) have responded positively as well, along with big men Ingram and Elliott Eliason, giving Smith some realistic options for a shortened but more productive rotation.
“No question — Julian’s playing like he was playing last year, and that’s the type of Julian we know he can be,” assistant coach Vince Taylor said. “It makes us a lot deeper team and it allows us to move Andre off the ball and gives us another ballhandler out there, too.”
Whether the strategy will work long term is still uncertain, but the Gophers have averaged 75 points in their past two games after not reaching 60 in their previous five.
“I think our new scheme of offense will help all of us benefit,” senior forward Trevor Mbakwe said. “Coach has been great. I know he went to the blackboard and said, ‘How can we improve offensively?’ We went through a stretch where it felt like it was hard for us to score 30 points in games. Lately we were able to score more points.”