Minnesota’s Press is Somewhat Unique in the Big TenPosted by Brendan Brody on November 16th, 2013
Minnesota has gotten off to a pretty successful start in the Richard Pitino era, as the Gophers have beaten two not-so-horrible mid-majors in Lehigh and Montana so far. The Gophers were one of the more enigmatic Big Ten teams to try to figure out in the preseason. They are playing a much different system, and although they have some players back with experience, they’re incorporating several new pieces that make this a team to keep an eye on going forward. Everybody knows that two games does not a sample size make, but since it’s all we have to go with so far as Minnesota heads into its game today with Richmond, here’s are a few things I’ve observed in those two opening games.
One question mark about Minnesota was its obvious lack of size, and the Gophers have started the year by going with a three-guard lineup in DeAndre Mathieu, Andre Hollins, and Austin Hollins. But whether this will hurt them once they hit the league schedule remains to be seen. One of their potential options in the low post, Maurice Walker, is suspended for six games. Eliott Eliason has shown early on, however, that he can be a force by altering shots and hitting the glass. So far he’s been the only true big man on the floor, and if he can continue to come close to getting 23.8 percent of the Gophers’ offensive rebounds and blocking shots at a 17.9 percent clip, he will go a long way toward alleviating these concerns (unsustainable numbers, but good ones nevertheless). He’ll never be Kevin McHale on the low block, but he’s shown so far that he can mix it up and get after the Gopher misses. Joey King and Oto Osenieks are more European-type big men, so while they’ll help some, it will be interesting to see what comes about from the Walker-Eliason combination once the suspended player comes back.
Point guards who are only 5’9″ are not necessarily an endangered species, but they aren’t exactly commonplace either. Mathieu has come in and shown, however, that he can be a very good point guard in this type of system. He’s already knocked down a couple of open looks from behind the arc, but his role is mainly going to be as a disruptor on the defensive end in the press and a distributor on the offensive end. Louisville has been so good the last couple of years by running the same type of system, and Peyton Siva was a big reason why it worked. If Mathieu can play a similar role and average five or so assists and a couple of steals per game, he can contribute as the same type of difference-maker. His 27 percent shooting inside the paint is definitely something to work on, but as long as he’s able to get the ball into the lane, he’ll create open looks for the shooters like Andre Hollins.
Stylistically, Minnesota is going to press. This is slightly unique to the conference, as aside from some Iowa teams from the past, teams have not really pressed for all 40 minutes. This in itself will make for some compelling match-ups in league play. But while the majority of the time the team will go with a traditional man-to-man press, they’ve also pressed to drop into a zone, they’ve tried some zone pressure, and they have generally switched up their defensive looks. Whether this is just Pitino trying some schemes out early or something he plans on utilizing all year, it is definitely something to keep a close eye on. Right now the Gophers are 19th in steal rate, and whether this will rise once the players get more comfortable in the system or drops when they play better competition, it might determine if Minnesota can push upward toward the high middle of the pack in the league hierarchy this season.