Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tubby Ball Year In Review Part 3

PJS Note: This is the third installment in an ongoing series looking at the season that was for Minnesota's men's basketball team. Previously we've discussed the three departing seniors and the impact Tubby Smith had on player progression.

Part 3: Defense

In the final year of the Dan Monson/Jim Molinari era, the Golden Gophers allowed on average 66 points per game. In Tubby Smith's first season, the Gophers allowed on average 63 points per game.

Not a huge difference, right? Maybe, but the change in defensive philosophy can be more easily seen in other areas. In 2006-07, Gophers opponents turned the ball over 390 times. In that year, the Gophers themselves turned the ball over 456 times. In Tubby's first season, those numbers changed dramatically. Minnesota caused or was the beneficiary of 560 turnovers made by opponents. Playing a more up-tempo game, the Gophers' turnover numbers rose as well (482 turnovers), but more times than not the Gophers were winning the turnover battle. The number of steals also rose dramatically, from 150 under Monson/Molinari to 298 under Tubby Smith.

Why the improvement in these categories? It wasn't for an influx of talent. But instead it came from a change in philosophy. After the first couple games of the season, returning players from Monson/Molinari's teams were quoted as saying Tubby Smith was orchestrating a 180 as far as their defensive thinking went. Instead of playing back, giving defenders a step or two because of a concern that opponents were more athletic than Minnesota, Tubby Smith instead decided to set the tempo himself.

The Gophers would apply full-court pressure against inferior, equal and superior opponents. Against lowly teams nicknamed such atrocious things as the Jackrabbits, this strategy allowed the Gophers to run up the score and gain confidence. Most importantly, however, the Gophers were playing aggressive basketball instead of playing basketball on their heels. One game specifically stands out.

In the second Big Ten game of the season, the Gophers travelled to Happy Valley to take on the Nittany Lions. This was Geary Claxton's last full game for Penn State and he led his team to a seemingly insurmountable double-digit second-half lead. Last year's Gophers wouldn't have had a shot. They would have sat back, playing not to lose, instead of increasing pressure. Tubby Smith decided with about 15 minutes left in that game to ramp up the full-court pressure. This did two things: caused turnovers and lengthened the game allowing Minnesota a chance to come back. Come back they did and an Al Nolen steal sealed the improbable comeback.

Aside from the full-court pressure, which admittedly did lessen as the Gophers played top-notch Big Ten foes, the Gophers executed Tubby Smith's ball-line defense fairly well. This meant Gophers defenders who were one pass away from the ball tried to deny passing lanes. Defenders two passes away would sag to help out. This leaves teams susceptible to the skip pass, but it also resulted in numerous deflections, steals and fast-break points, something the offensively challenged Gophers desperately needed.

Finally, a couple players deserve some plaudits for helping the Gophers improve defensively. Damian Johnson led the team in blocks (46) and was second in steals (59) and most likely led the team in deflections. Al Nolen led the team with 64 steals. Just how good was Nolen in this department? Let's look at Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free stats. Nolen ranked 9th nationally in Steal Percentage, which is, according to Pomeroy's site "the percentage of possessions that a player records a steal while he is on the court. It is computed by Steals/(%Min * Team Possessions). Anything greater than 5% is very good."

Nolen's steal percentage was 5.2 percent, which was the highest for any BCS conference player. For comparison, Kansas' Mario Chalmers, who demonstrated his defensive aptitude during the Final Four, was #17 by those rankings and finished with a Steal Percentage of 4.75. The Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, Purdue's Chris Kramer, finished right behind Chalmers.

Damian Johnson wasn't far behind, ending the season ranked 21st in Steal Percentage.

These numbers might not say everything--considering former Gopher Rico Tucker finished right ahead of Chalmers for his work out west for Pepperdine--but they do indicate how proficient Nolen was at pick-pocketing opponents.

Conclusion: Tubby Smith came in and completely changed the way returning Gophers thought on the defensive end. Playing not to lose wasn't the plan any more. The aggressiveness certainly cost the Gophers on possessions here or there, but overall the increased intensity and focus on creating turnovers helped the Gophers win games. A big reason why the Gophers won 11 more games in Tubby Smith's first year than they did in the last year of Molinari/Monson was the new defensive mindset. The offense is a different story. And that will be the next installment.


Friend Of Tubby said...

Defense can be improved quickly but offense takes more time.

I think some Gophers improved on offense but others did not.

Tubby is going to have new players this season with better offensive skills.

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