One statistic that encompasses a lot of what Gophers coach Richard Pitino preaches as “good defense” doesn’t show up in the boxscore or even with advanced statistics numbers.
Deflections are not just about taking the ball away from an opponent, either with a steal, block or just a tipped pass. It measures how active and intense a team’s defense is during a game.
Pitino learned the importance of deflections coaching on his father’s staff at Louisville. Rick Pitino won a national title with the Cardinals in 2013 putting emphasis on it — having members of his staff track deflections on a chart to look at during the game. Minnesota has the same philosophy.
“We have a board,” Pitino said, “and to the left there’s a column with deflections for every player.”
Length is a big reason why the Gophers (10-1) are getting more deflections than last season.
Not surprisingly, the Big Ten’s top shot blocker, Reggie Lynch, leads the team with 45 deflections. His near 7-foot-3 wingspan instantly transformed the defense this year.
The 6-10 junior from Edina ranks fifth in the nation with 3.7 blocks per game, which includes 18 swats in his past four games. That doesn’t even include his nine-block performance against St. John’s on Nov. 18.
“Last year, we did not have great length,” said Pitino, whose team plays LIU-Brooklyn (7-3) on Wednesday at Williams Arena. “We didn’t have great shot blocking. We had to play three guards a lot.”
The only player in the Gophers’ rotation this year without a wingspan of at least 6-7 is point guard Nate Mason. Newcomers Eric Curry (6-10½ wingspan), Michael Hurt (6-8), Amir Coffey (6-7) and Akeem Springs (6-7) have made the team one of the longest in the Big Ten. Returning players Jordan Murphy ( 7-foot wingspan), Bakary Konate (7-1) and Dupree McBrayer (6-10) also have long arms for their height.
Mason makes up for his lack of length (6-2 wingspan) by studying scouting reports on opposing guards and locking in on shutting down his opponent.
“We’re definitely longer than we were last year,” Mason said. “We also pay a lot more attention to detail.”
Minnesota leads the conference and ranks sixth nationally with 6.8 blocks per game. But while that might intimidate and change shots, it doesn’t always mean the Gophers are playing great defense.
Pitino even called Lynch out for not being the best defender at times, leading to foul trouble.
“I take pride in being able to defend the rim,” Lynch said. “He’s talking about being able to laterally move quicker. So I can keep guys in front. That’s something I definitely have to work on.”
Pitino said players might sometimes not worry about being late to rotate and allow penetration because there’s someone protecting the rim. Blocked shots leave Minnesota vulnerable for offensive rebounds. And defensive rebounding is an area that concerns Pitino getting close to Big Ten play.
Racking up a lot of steals isn’t always a great indicator of great defense, either. Gambling for steals on the court can sometimes put players out of position and cause breakdowns.
A good example was in 2014-15 when the Gophers were No. 2 in the nation with 12 steals per game in nonconference. But they struggled defending teams once Big Ten play started, resulting in a 0-5 start.
The Gophers don’t press fullcourt as often as Louisville, or even like they did in Pitino’s first two seasons. They average just 5.8 steals this year. But the Gophers still get 21 deflections per game.
Pitino said this is his best defensive team since he’s been at Minnesota. The added length and continued positive deflection numbers prove his point so far.
“I think there’s a level of confidence,” he said. “When we need to get a stop we feel like we can get it. Competition is going to get more difficult. We know that. That’s why we need to get better. But they’re more fundamentally together. If one guy messes up, the other guy helps him out. By far it’s my best [defense] so far.”