Friday, January 6, 2017

Minnesota's Perimeter Defense Carries Gophers Past Northwestern

On multiple, crunch-time second half possessions, Northwestern got the matchup it wanted. Running a high pick and roll for star guard Bryant McIntosh, the Wildcats forced a switch that found McIntosh on the wing one-on-one with Minnesota's power forward Jordan Murphy.

Advantage McIntosh, NU Coach Chris Collins must have thought. Wrong.

Murphy showed just why this Minnesota team is so dangerous. The first time McIntosh squared up on Murphy, the Minnesota's sophomore power forward kept NU's guard in front of him, behind the three point arc and forced a contested three pointer. McIntosh missed.

The second time Murphy found himself in space against McIntosh, NU's guard used a quick first step to penetrate. But Murphy was game here too. He moved his feet, regained defensive position and blocked McIntosh's layup attempt.

Minnesota's ability to defend the perimeter was why it won at Welsh-Ryan arena on Thursday night and it's why the sky is the limit for the Gophers in the Big Ten conference.

Northwestern shot 23 percent from three on the night and a dismal 6.7 percent (1-15) in the second half. This wasn't a case of a capable NU team simply missing open looks. The Gophers' perimeter defense was excellent. And it was excellent because of its versatility.

Think of Minnesota's versatility a bit like you'd think of Golden State's defensive versatility in the NBA. Draymond Green at the 4 or 5 can capably play against smaller, quicker guards when forced into the situation. Same here.

And credit Coach Richard Pitino for using his team's athleticism and length to his team's advantage defensively. It wasn't just Murphy. Pitino occasionally went small in the second half, playing freshman forward Eric Curry alongside Murphy, giving Minnesota 5 players on the floor who can capably defend the perimeter.

Minnesota's defensive fundamentals, especially on the close out at three point line, have also been excellent. Players are closing fast but getting into defensive position, with short, choppy steps to stay under control as they close, and challenging with their hands up. Good close-out technique isn't sexy to discuss, and it doesn't show up individually in a box score, but it makes a world of difference defensively. And when combined with a long, athletic, versatile roster, it can stifle good-shooting teams.

That's why Minnesota won 70-66 for its second consecutive Big Ten road win.

Offensively, Minnesota was balanced. After a scorching hot start to begin the game, Minnesota cooled off. Nate Mason, a game after catapulting himself into All Big Ten conversations, was quiet. But to his credit, he didn't force his shots and he came up huge with 8 consecutive free throws in the final seconds. Yes, 8. He finished with 12 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds to only 1 turnover.

Amir Coffey's 17 points paced Minnesota offensively. Reggie Lynch added 12 points and 8 rebounds. Coffey's play on both ends of the floor -- his length and anticipation defensively and his ability to finish in transition and create his own shot offensively -- was fun to watch. He's looking increasingly like a star in the making as just a freshman.

For Gophers' fans shrugging their shoulders at a win over Northwestern, don't. Collins' Wildcats are 12-4 and will, at worst, be on the bubble come March. Other Big Ten teams will fall in Weslh-Ryan arena.

Other notes:

  • How good must have it felt for Michael Hurt to hit that impactful second half three? Hurt has played meaningful minutes but had went just 1-12 from 3 before his make Thursday. Big time confidence boost for a needed bench contributor.
  • A game after almost single-handedly carrying the Gophers in overtime at Purdue, Eric Curry was quiet. He didn't score. But he played 16 minutes and helped the Gophers field an athletic defense that helped Minnesota defend the perimeter.
  • I thought Bakary Konate's 8 minutes were again very good. He rolled on high screens twice and presented himself for Nate Mason to find for easy dunks. Konate as a back=up big man is pretty good.
  • Dupree McBrayer struggled from the field. 3-10 and 0-3 from 3. McBrayer forced his offense a couple times and he occasionally gives me Carols Morris flashbacks.
  • Free throws. Ugh. Minnesota didn't get to the line at the rate it has during the first two Big Ten games, but when it did the Gophers shot 14-22. Prior to Mason's 8 straight to ice the game Minnesota was a ghastly 6-14.Gotta make FTs.
  • Minnesota won the turnover battle again, this time just by a 9-8 margin. But winning that battle on the road is always a win. On the season Minnesota has 255 assists and 191 turnovers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Program WIth A Black Eye Needed A New Leader

It's not every day a Governor weighs in to the goings-on of a college football program.

But there we were on December 16th, Minnesota's Governor Mark Dayton was forced to make a statement. The Gophers football team had given the state a "bad black eye."

And he was right.

So on Tuesday, Athletic Director Mark Coyle and University President Eric Kaler dismissed Head Coach Tracy Claeys.

Upset players took to Twitter and other platforms as the news of Claeys' dismissal became public. They weren't a happy bunch. The Daily Gopher has a number of reactions posted here.

It's no surprise that players are rallying around their just-fired coach. It was the Gophers players, after all, who made national news -- and not the kind a University or state wants -- during their misguided boycott over what they perceived as a lack of due process.

The players didn't have all the facts. And perhaps neither did Claeys when he Tweeted out his pride for his boycotting players. Those facts later trickled out to KSTP, and they were awful.

But there are times and places to take stands. It's understandable the teammates will be inclined to charge mountains for their brothers. But adults, and especially leaders of young men, which is what the head coach of a college football program ought to be, needs to set an example both on an off the field.

Tracy Claeys led the Gophers to a 9-4 record and an upset victory in the National Funding Holiday Bowl over Washington State. On the field, all things considered, it was a pretty good season for the maroon and gold.

Off the field, both Claeys, and the players he's charged to lead, gave the state and its flagship University one big, unexcusable self-inflicted black eye. The players can be excused for taking an ill-advised stand too far with their public-facing boycott. But Coach Claeys either acted without the facts or failed to lead his players. Neither is excusable.

And that gave Coyle no choice.

Claeys had to go.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Mason, Gophers Thrive Under Pressure In Upset Over Purdue

They could have come out flat days after letting a win slip away in overtime against Michigan State.

They could have lost confidence on New Year's Day as Purdue erased an early 13 point deficit and took a second half lead.

They could have surrendered when both Jordan Murphy and Bakary Konate fouled out with 4 minutes left in the game.

And they could have wilted in overtime.

Instead, the Gophers responded. Time and again. In doing so, the Gophers earned what national pundits are calling Richard Pitino's marquee win as head man at Minnesota in a 91-82 overtime win over Purdue at raucous Mackey Arena.

Winning on the road in the Big Ten is no easy task. But the Gophers didn't just win on the road Sunday, they beat a Boilermakers team with Big Ten title hopes. And there was nothing random or fluky about the win.

Nate Mason was brilliant.

31 points. 11 assists. 6 rebounds. 2 steals. 11-18 from the field. Only 1 turnover in 38 minutes.

31 and 11. Apparently, the first Gophers player in history to drop 30-plus and record 10-plus assists. Think about that. Not Bobby Jackson. Not Ariel McDonald. Not Mychal Thompson or Flip Saunders. Not Sam Jacobsen. Not Al Nolen.

Let it settle in.

Mason's great game almost wasn't enough. Purdue's Caleb Swanigan looked every bit the part of a dominant Big Ten big man. Swanigan had 28 points and 22 rebounds. And as the game entered its final stretches, Swanigan's dominance forced both Murphy and Konate to the sidelines with five fouls.

That meant the Gophers would have to prevail in overtime with freshman Eric Curry playing alongside Reggie Lynch. Curry stepped up in a huge way. He was active defensively and on the  and , scored 7 points, including a clutch three pointer. Curry finished with 10 points and 7 rebounds in his first Big Ten road game.

The Gophers had survived all afternoon without much bench production. Heading into overtime, the Gophers had a whopping 5 points from its bench. Curry alone had 7 in overtime.

Other notes from Minnesota's upset over Purdue:
    • Lynch's interior presence, while overshadowed by the monster games from Mason and Swanigan, continues to be excellent. 10 points. 6 rebounds. 5 blocks.
    • 17 fouls from Minnesota's frontcourt against Purdue's Swanigan and Haas. 14 fouls from Minnesota's frontcourt earlier in the week against Michigan State. Some of the foul trouble is understandable given the competition. But at least a handful of the fouls for Minnesota's bigs have come 90 feet from the basket. And others have been unnecessary. The Gophers need to keep their bigs out of foul trouble moving forward.
    • Amir Coffey was quiet most of the afternoon against Purdue. He finished with 8 points, including 2-2 from three, one of which came at a crucial moment down the stretch.
    • Bakary Knoate fouled out. He didn't score. He had three rebounds. Not a sexy box score. But Konate's minutes were solid and the Gophers needed all 20 of them to stay stout enough against Purdue's interior.
    • An active defense helped push the Gophers' to victory. The Gophers had 8 blocks. Pudue 0. The Gophers had 9 steals. Purdue had 1. Purdue had 14 turnovers. Minnesota had 7. More times than not, that type of discrepancy will lead to victories.
Finally, Dupree McBrayer gets the highlight of the day:

Up next, the Gophers head to 12-3 Northwestern. These aren't your father's Wildcats. They're 1-1 in the Big Ten and Coach Chris Collins has the program turned in a positive direction chasing its first NCAA Tournament.

What They're Saying About Gophers' Win At #15 Purdue

When you climb to 13-2 with a win on the road at Mackey Arena against the #15 Purdue Boilermakers, the national media types take notice. Here's a round-up of what they're saying about Richard Pitino's Gophers outside of Dinkytown.