Rodney Williams Holds the Key to Minnesota’s Mid-Season SlumpPosted by Deepak Jayanti on January 29th, 2013
Deepak is a writer for the Big Ten microsite of Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about B1G hoops at @dee_b1g.
About two weeks ago, the Minnesota Gophers were ranked #8 in the polls and were considered as one of the contenders to win the Big Ten title. After a tough loss to Indiana (88-81) on the road, the Gophers unexpectedly hit a mid-season slump by dropping three more games in a row to Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin. The Gophers still have the talent to become a top team in the Big Ten but they might need some help from their senior forward Rodney Williams. Even though forward Trevor Mbakwe has been averaging a double-double (12 PPG and 11.5 RPG) and guard Andre Hollins has averaged 16 PPG during the losing streak, Williams holds the key for the Gophers to return to their winning ways. It is not coincidental that Williams has struggled mightily during the team’s losing skid — he scored 11, 11, seven and two points during the four losses against Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin, respectively.
Except for the IU game, Williams hasn’t been comfortable in the offense and his hesitancy can be attributed to the overall pace of the game and his offensive skill set. The athletic forward runs the court very well and is a great recipient of passes in transition because he finishes so strongly around the basket. The IU game was played at a frantic pace because Tom Crean’s team prefers it that way and it suited Williams’ offensive strengths. But the Wildcats and the Badgers slowed the game down against Minnesota with their defense, and it forced the senior forward to find other ways to score in the half-court. He shot just 3-of-11 from the field against the 1-3-1 zone in Evanston because he wasn’t given the ball in his favorite spots on the floor. When he isn’t scoring in transition, Williams is excellent off the pick-and-roll where he sets a screen at the high post or the baseline and uses his quickness to cut to the basket to finish with a variety of dunks. A majority of his points in the half-court are a result of layups or dunks as the Gopher guards get into paint. The Wildcats forced Hollins to instead settle for jumpers (2-of-7 3FG), so he couldn’t get Williams involved. Even though the Badgers didn’t play a similar zone, Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson were still able to prevent Hollins from driving past the first layer of defense. Hollins still scored 20 points but didn’t have much success getting all the way to the basket. It is clear that Williams struggles offensively when Hollins and the other guards can’t get into the paint. His performance against the Wolverines looked fine on paper (11 points) but he turned the ball over four times because he was trying too hard to create his own shot — not one of his offensive strengths.
Most Big Ten coaches will use similar defensive tactics to take Williams out of his comfort zone, so when that happens, he needs to be more selective with his shots. Near the end of the Wisconsin game, the Big Ten Network’s announcers pointed out that Williams’ body language hadn’t been good and therefore should be picked to shoot Mbakwe’s (who was injured briefly) free throws to finish the game. Bo Ryan picked Williams to take the foul shots and, right on cue, the senior missed the second attempt which could have forced overtime. He needs to be more patient and wait for opposing defenses to break down or turn the ball over so the Gophers can push the ball in transition rather than attempt to create his own shot. He doesn’t need to score 12 points a game to have an impact but a more efficient eight points from a couple of easy ones will not only raise his teammates’ overall energy during the game, but will also ease the scoring burden that is placed on the Gophers’ guards. Tonight’s game against Nebraska should help Williams regain his confidence but those same adjustments need to happen against superior competition, and when it does, just a dunk or two will get the “hop” back into this Gopher offense and Tubby Smith’s team can again move in the right direction.