This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.

  Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno

Free throws, defense among major concerns for Gophers

Posted by: Amelia Rayno under College basketball Updated: December 21, 2010 - 5:22 PM

With less than a week before their Big Ten season begins, the Gophers have the tools to finish higher in the standings than any Gophers team coached by Tubby Smith.

Their size has made them the No. 1 rebounding team in the league (41.1 boards per game). And like past years, they lead the conference in blocks and steals.

Trevor Mbakwe looks like the real deal. Blake Hoffarber is having his best season. And a strong roster mixed with veterans and freshmen has helped this squad achieve a national ranking with one remaining game prior to the start of Big Ten play.

And even with all of that they're struggling in key areas that could leave them in a bad spot once Big Ten play begins.

Five Areas of Concern for Minnesota

1. Free throws: When the Gophers go to the free throw line, the home crowd gets anxious, like it's watching a 5-year-old get on a bike without training wheels for the first time. You don't know what to expect.

Entering the week, the Gophers were shooting 62.5 percent from the charity stripe, the worst mark in the Big Ten. Even worse, they're ranked 299th out of 336 Division I teams.

With all of the close games that this team played last year, it's not difficult to comprehend the significance of free throws. The Gophers lost seven games by five points or less last season. And they hit 70 percent of their attempts a year ago.

Only three players are shooting 70 percent or better this year.

2. Defending the three-point line: Against most of the teams they've played so far, the Gophers have had too much talent and size. In most situations, they overcame near-upsets against teams that quickly recognized their problems defending the three-point line.

Siena went 9 for 17. Virginia went 10 for 13 in the Gophers only loss of the season. St. Joe's went 6 for 12 in the second half of a tight road game.

Gophers opponents have hit 36.7 percent of their three-point attempts, 10th in the Big Ten and 264th in the nation.

Five Big Ten squads have bettered a 37 percent clip from beyond the arc thus far. Unlike the majority of Minnesota's nonconference opponents, however, they're talented enough to exploit the Gophers in other areas, too.

3. Three-point shooting: The Gophers were the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten last season (39.9 percent). But the additional size has altered this team's offensive philosophy this season.

Six players hit at least 38 percent of their three-point attempts last year. This season? Four.

Part of that is because there are more big guys on the floor who aren't taking the same shots that Damian Johnson and Paul Carter took last season. Plus, Lawrence Westbrook made 41 percent of his three-point attempts during the 2009-10 campaign.

Smith has stressed balance this year. The Gophers, who have hit 34.8 percent of their attempts, will be a much better team if players like Chip Armelin and Rodney Williams improve from the perimeter during league play.

4. Scoring defense: The Gophers have given up 67.7 points per game, the worst mark in the Big Ten and 182nd in the nation.

More than once, Smith has said that his defense has taken a hit since losing Johnson, the best all-around defender in the Big Ten last year. The struggles have forced Smith to employ more zone than anticipated.

The Gophers have the 141st-ranked nonconference strength of schedule, according to ESPN.com. So they've been challenged by the offensive output of teams that aren't great on paper. They'll face talented players and deep rosters most nights in league action. And that's a concern for a team that's allowed players like Siena's Clarence Jackson (29 points) and St. Joe's Carl Jones (29 points) to have career nights and nearly lead their squads to upsets.

Ten Big Ten teams are averaging more points than the Gophers have given up each night at this point in the season.

5. Turnovers: Minnesota's 15.0 turnovers per game rank 207th in the nation. Some assume the return of Al Nolen and Al Nolen's ballhandling will help the Gophers in this crucial area. But Nolen's 2.5 turnovers per game lead the squad.

This is a vital area for the Gophers. Slow starts plus turnovers plus poor free throw shooting often equals losses in tough conference games. Definitely not the only factors, but they're important.

 

 

 

 

 

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