It’s no secret that the Gophers have performed really well on the offensive boards this year – they’re still leading the nation with offensive rebounding percentage with an average of 49.7 percent (of available offensive boards), in fact.
It’s a statistic that’s been cited by media the nation over as a validation of why the Gophers are just THIS good and belong at No. 8 in the country.
But the confounding other half of that statistic is Minnesota’s defensive rebounding percentage (67.4 percent), which is all the way down at No. 241 in the country (if you go by ESPN statistics) or 294 (if insert by NCAA statistics*) – and the Gophers are dead last in their conference in that category.
I talked to two coaches of opponents the Gophers have played this season – Matt Driscoll of North Florida and Jeff Jones of American -- to get their thoughts on the vast discrepancy (both were surprised the rebounding percentages were that different).
The Driscoll theory: The North Florida had plenty of theories at the ready –
Do the Gophers foul a lot (losing defensive rebounds there)? Yes, but not an obscene amount. Minnesota fouls a good bit, but not an obscene amount, falling at No. 80 (best) nationwide with an average of 16.4 a game (by comparison, Penn State fouls the most of any Big Ten team, and is 339th in the nation with 21.6).
Do opponents shoot a lot of 3’s against the Gophers (are they not doing the job on the long D rebounds?): Also not obscene – opponents attempt an average of 17.5 3-pointers per game against the Gophers, and one of the beauties of this Minnesota team is that it shares rebounds along with points. Mbakwe leads the starting five with 7.7 rebounds a game and Rodney Williams follows with six – but then Joe Coleman chips in with 4.3 a game, Austin Hollins adds 3.4 and Andre Hollins, 2.5.
Finally, Driscoll suggested that the Gophers’ athleticism and nose for the ball of the offensive end led to them focusing on those strengths in the non-conference schedule, against inferior teams – choosing instead to simply out-run and out-score them -- which could account for the poor rebounding. By that theory, the Gophers would be improving significantly in Big Ten play, but they would also be performing significantly better against the major conference teams they’ve seen this season.
But going through the numbers, that’s just not the case. The Gophers performed even worse on defensive boards than their yearly average against Richmond, Duke, Memphis, Stanford and FSU.
All good thoughts, but none of which quite fit -- Your turn, Jones.
The Jones theory: The American coach hypothesized that the Gophers simply don’t have the personnel to be great defensive rebounders.
“Defensive rebounding is different than offensive rebounding ,” Jones said. “In offensive rebounding, it’s more a matter of a mindset to go get the ball -- from a defensive rebounding standpoint, you want to check out, you want to go get the ball, but having that inside position makes it kind of a different dynamic.
“None of their post men are really thick. Rodney Williams obviously a really good offensive rebounder. [Elliott} Eliason (who Jones called long and active but certainly not “thick”), he just thinks offensive rebounds. He knows he’s not getting very many shots, so he knows if he wants to touch the ball, that’s the way he’s going to do it.
“Austin Hollins – He is another guy that he’s seemingly built to be a terrific offensive rebounder. He’s coming from the perimeter, he’s quick to the ball, he’s an explosive leader and, you know, he’s persistent. So he creates problems I think. But when it gets to be a wrestling match in there, sometimes those kinds of bodies aren’t quite so effective.”
Of course, Mbakwe is back now, something he wasn’t really when the Gophers played American. And that certainly helps.
But even Jones said that he would be surprised the “thinner” roster would account for so great a difference.
Here’s the most interesting thing I’ve discovered: regardless of the opponent, the Gophers are getting dramatically different in defensive rebounding, although they were so poor earlier in the season it will take a while to be reflected in the national rankings.
According to my own math, the Gophers defensively rebounded at a percentage of 60.8 (219/360) in the first nine games.
In the last six games? Well, the Gophers have catapulted more than 11 percentage points, to 72.1 percent. At the same time, their offensive rebounding has remained remarkably consistent – getting 49.3 percent (147/298) in the first nine games and 50.2 (105/209) in the most recent six.
The improvement in defensive rebounding is extremely significant. Will the Gophers continue that trend? That, I cannot tell you. The Gophers grabbed 76.4 percent of available defensive rebounds against Northwestern, a pretty poor rebounding team, but only 60.9 (below their average) against Michigan State. The Gophers are playing some strong rebounding teams ahead, that is certain.
Even so, I find it notable that the Gophers have rebounded so much better, even against mid majors, than they did against the same caliber team earlier this season
*Which match the official statistics I have received and calculated. ESPN’s stats will occasionally deviate slightly.