Minnesota beat No. 10 Butler 82-73 last week on its way to winning its first four games of the season. The future looked bright for the Gophers as thoughts of contending for a Big Ten Title danced in their heads.
In less than a week, the Gophers dropped three straight and had their weaknesses exposed. Clouds have now come into view and the Gophers now have to squint to see an NCAA tournament invitation bid in the distance.
Fortunately, Minnesota heads back home to the barn for its next five games to resolve some issues before the Big Ten season begins.
In recognition of the seven games that the Gophers have played, below are the top seven issues for the Gophers to figure out:
1. Find a closer
In the last five minutes of close games, the Gophers struggle to find a shot because there is no one Golpher who can consistently create his own shot. Someone on the squad needs to step up to be the man in crunch time.
The three leading candidates to assume that role are Lawrence Westbrook, Al Nolen and Devoe Joseph.
Blake Hoffarber is a legitimate threat from three-point land but since he can't put the ball on the floor to get his own shot he is not in the conversation.
Westbrook is the favorite because his numbers for field goal shooting and shooting three point shots this year are better than his career numbers. The downside for Westbrook is that he still has problems creating enough separation to get a good shot when he is guarded by a bigger player.
Nolen is the toughest of the three willing to sacrifice his body to get to the rim. Unfortunately, he has never been enough of an outside threat.
Teams are more than willing to step in and take a charge when he drives to the basket. If Nolen can add a tear drop shot ala Tony Parker he could emerge as the dark horse in the race.
Joseph is an enigma. He has taken the most three-pointers but he is shooting only 29.4 percent from beyond the arc.
He has hit some key late three point shots despite shooting some flat shots. He clearly has the right mental make-up for a closer, no shame.
Joseph at 6’3'' is tall enough to get his shot off over a tall defender but because he is slight of build he is often pushed out of his comfort zone.
If Westbrook doesn’t take the reins by the first week of January, I look for Joseph to claim the prize.
2. Lawrence Westbrook needs to limit his turnovers
Westbrook has historically had a very good assist to turnover ratio, as he has had more assists than turnovers in each of his first three years.
This year, Westbrook has had his pocket picked too often as his assist to turnover ratio is 1:2.8. As the leading scorer on the team, the Gophers can ill afford that ratio given how often the ball is in his hands.
3. Joseph needs to find his shot
Joseph is only shooting 37.5 percent from the floor. As the third leading scorer on the team, the Gophers need better efficiency from Joseph.
The release on his shot is a little slower than Westbrook, which is likely leading him to occasionally alter his shot to avoid the block when the defender closes out on him.
4. Shoot better from the free throw line
On the season, the Gophers are shooting only 64.3 percent from the line.
The Gophers shot an anemic 46.7 percent in their loss to Miami.
If the Gophers had shot just 75 percent in their last three games they would be undefeated, especially in light of how many front-end of bonus free throws they missed.
Given the defensive style of basketball played by Gophers, this team needs to convert 80 percent of their free throws to play late into March.
5. Limit second chance opportunities
The Gophers gave up too many offensive rebounds to Portland (9), Texas A&M (11) and Miami (12).
In watching Minnesota battle under the boards the issue, unfortunately, is about desire. The other teams have simply wanted the ball more than the Gophers and are willing to impose their physical presence upon Minnesota on the block.
The only consistently “nasty” interior player for Minnesota is Colton Iverson.
Case in point, Iverson picked up a foul tossing Butler’s Gordon Hayward to the ground after they became entangled. Iverson proceeded to put an exclamation point on his statement that night as he collected 11 rebounds in only 16 minutes of playing time.
6. Defend the arc and identify perimeter threat
Minnesota’s perimeter defenders are not rotating fast enough back to the perimeter allowing uncontested shots at the arc. Texas A&M shot 42.9 percent from three-point land because Minnesota gave up too many open looks at the perimeter.
The Gophers have also failed to recognize the deep threat of their opponents.
For example, Portland’s T.J. Campbell came into the game against Minnesota shooting over 50 percent from beyond the arc. Campbell torched the Gophers as he went 4-of-8 from downtown.
Malcolm Grant has shot over 40 percent in his career on his three point attempts at Miami. Grant went 4-of-7 from three point land.
Neither Campbell nor Grant should have been given the opportunity to shoot that many quality three-point shots.
7. Resolve issues with Trevor Mbakwe, Royce White, and Devron Bostick
The Gophers have three players who are in limbo with suspensions.
While I can appreciate that Coach Tubby Smith is doing everything he can do to ensure that this is not a distraction, it is difficult to imagine that these suspensions aren’t a distraction on some level with the team.
Coach Smith has hinted that Bostick could play on Saturday which would be good news. Hopefully, more good news will come before the holidays and Mbakwe and White will be cleared to play.
If the Gophers can retool and run off five victories, they would enter Big Ten play at a respectable 9-3.
Given the depth of the Big Ten, if the Gophers finish with a winning record during conference play they will have enough quality wins over top-ranked teams to earn an NCAA bid.
Of course, the first thing the Gophers need to do is to get a tune-up.
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