Friday, December 30, 2016

Improved Gophers Team Runs Into Tom Izzo

Credit where credit is due: Richard Pitino's Golden Gophers were the superior team on Tuesday night at Williams Arena.

For the first time in who knows how long, the Golden Gophers appeared to be the more talented basketball team during a matchup with the Michigan State Spartans. Pitino's staff deserves credit for recruiting a roster that looks to be one of the more balanced, athletic and talented rosters in recent memory.

Credit where credit is due: Tom Izzo outcoached Richard Pitino on Tuesday at Williams Arena in a game the Spartans, from an on-the-court talent perspective had no business winning.

The first half of Tuesday's B1G opener featured an aggressive Golden Gophers team taking it to Sparty. Dupree McBrayer, Nate Mason and Amir Coffey slashed their way into the lane, pushed tempo (while at times out of control) and created efficient offense by getting to the charity stripe. Defensively, the Gophers rotated, closed out under control, challenged Sparty on the interior. Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy demonstrated they're B1G caliber rim protectors and rebounders.

Sparty was on its heels and all signs pointed to a Gophers victory in the B1G opener.

And then Tom Izzo adjusted, a minor adjustment though it was, and Richard Pitino's Gophers never retaliated. The Gophers entered the locker room at halftime feeling good about themselves, leading impressively 39-26. They shot 54.5 percent and held Sparty to under 35 percent from the field.

Things changed quickly. In an attempt to stymie Minnesota's trio of slashers, Izzo decided to play four guards and switch on all perimeter screens. This simple adjustment kept Minnesota's trio of effective slashers (McBrayer/Coffey/Mason) out of the lane and neutralized Minnesota's high pick and roll.

Whether by design or accident, the Gophers' first two second half posessions saw the maroon and gold dump the ball inside. Neither possession ended in a basket and quickly Sparty was cutting into the lead. But as the half continued, the Gophers attempted to rely on the dribble drive offensive tendencies that led to its first half success.

Problem was Izzo took that away and the Gophers never found an answer. Pitino needed his bigs to roll and seal after setting a pick and post Michigan State's little guards up in the lane.

Pitino could have featured Murphy in the roll part of the pick and roll or simply feature him in the post. Alternatively, Pitino's bigs could have slipped the screens and cut.

No adjustment occurred. And Sparty won a game that, talent-wise, it shouldn't have won.

Murphy was dominant in the paint and finished with 12 points and 21 rebounds. 12 and 21. 12 and 21. He was a monster. And on many of those wasted second half possessions, including the failed attempt in overtime at the buzzer, when Izzo had five guards on the floor, Pitino didn't look inside.

And if not Murphy in the post, Coffey's all-around game could have been featured under the basket.

Minnesota's perimeter-oriented focus contributed significantly to its decidedly awful 25 percent second half shooting.

Despite Minnesota snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the B1G opener, there's plenty of reason for optimism.

Minnesota's defense is the best I've seen in years. And Pitino and his coaching staff deserve significant credit for putting a team on the floor that is active, rotating well, closing out well, challenging shots and boxing out. This is no small accomplishment, and its aided by the Gophers' length, athleticism and interior girth.

While Pitino was outcoached in-game on Tuesday, the young coach and his staff have done well to put a team on the floor that is playing team defense better than any Minnesota team in years.

But this loss stings. It's not often an inferior Sparty team comes into The Barn. And the Gophers head this weekend to Purdue, where a nationally ranked Matt Painter team awaits.

The Gophers didn't get this one. And they'll be underdogs against the Boilermakers. But I haven't been more excited about a Gophers hoops team in years.

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