Austin Hollins has been a catalyst in the Gophers first two games.
Early season non-conference games are great fodder for debates in college basketball. Lineups are far from concrete, player growth is slowly becoming evident, relationships are still being developed and on-court execution ebbs and flows like a tide. However, because these games often come against low-quality opponents it’s difficult to know exactly how well a team is doing. Sloppiness has a tendency to seep in to a team’s style when they aren’t challenged, and when a team doesn’t sense a threat on the other side of the ball they don’t play quite to the level they’re capable of.
The Gophers are no different. Through two games against non-descript opponents they’ve dominated without being challenged, and in the end they’ve looked very good overall. Seriously, at this point last year we were merely surviving against Bucknell and Fairfield instead of nitpicking 30-point blowouts.
But how do you really know what you have in a team until their weaknesses and strengths have been showcased and exposed against top talent? Elliott Eliason has been solid down low, for instance, but how do we know he won’t get his pants pulled down when he posts up Mason Plumlee? Of course, it’s possible to uncover the nuggets this time of year, but nailing down trends and how things will play out it is certainly more difficult.
Minnesota basically played mistake-free basketball against American, for example, but couldn’t have had a much sloppier second half against Toledo. Yet, they dominated in both games, so their mistakes aren’t quite as evident as they would be against a better opponent. They’ve looked good, for the most part, but there are also a few things that could spell trouble once they take they floor against a team that won’t give up their lunch money so easily.
So what’s happened in the last week and a half? Certainly much more good than bad.
Austin Hollins looks like he’s going to be a beast – The biggest and best surprise of the season so far has been Hollins. The thrust of the offseason discussion was the growth of Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams down the stretch last year and how well they would/could carry over their successes. Yes, Minnesota’s season will largely hinge on whether or not those two can shoulder a lot of the load this year, but an important crux that we should not overlook is how well Austin Hollins can put it together in his junior season. We all know what he can bring to the table, but he has yet to bring his talents together for long stretches in a season. With his defensive intensity and offensive capabilities firing on all cylinders he has looked like a much more complete player so far, and it’s allowed for people like Andre to shoulder less of the offensive load and concentrate on being a point guard. Obviously, the more weapons the Gophers have to lean on this season the better off they will be. Austin is in a position to be game-changer this season, and it looks like he’ll be playing a big part of helping shoulder the load.
Tubby Smith is not employing hockey-style lineup changes – A lot of us cringed every time the “second line” came in last year. Not because the substitutions were unwarranted, but because they often disrupted the flow of the game. Far too often the Gophers were playing particularly smooth, efficient basketball and Tubby would deploy his second line of players to come in and take over. This led to initially sloppy play, because the players were coming in cold, and killed the team’s momentum. Of course, this was necessary when the starters weren’t getting it done, and all players need a break at some point, but the mass substitutions generally felt unnecessary. So far this season we’ve seen Tubby move away from the five-in/five-out substitution method and deploy a more methodical system – bringing in one or two guys at a time and letting the offense slowly morph into the second line to give the starters a break. It’s felt much more seamless and less intrusive than the alternative.
Lots of full-court pressing – Minnesota is a deep, athletic team this year and has anywhere from 10-11 guys capable of seeing extended time on the court. This means they have an advantage over other teams in the energy department, and can deploy things like a full-court press for longer periods of time than their opponents. Already this year we’ve seen the Gophers open up the game in a full-court press – an approach that has allowed them to push other teams out of their comfort zone right from the get go. Not only does this knock the opponent out of rhythm, but it has led to the Gophers being in transition more often, which is where they thrive. It’s been great to see the team deploy a high level of intensity right out of the gate and harass their opponent from the get-go. It reflects a mentality that they aren’t taking anything for granted – a sizeable deviation from how they opened up the season last year.
Trouble in the half-court … again – This was more evident in the game against American than it was against Toledo, but the half-court set offense still leaves something to be desired. It’s been a knock on the team for a few years now, but the offense still feels stagnant when they find themselves stuck in a half-court set. Granted, the team picked Toledo apart when the Rockets were in their man-to-man defense and the Gophers are definitely a good passing team, but what’s concerning was the opening game against American. The Eagles sagged in a pretty easygoing zone, basically daring the Gophers to beat them by hitting threes. And Minnesota bricked attempt after attempt. Unfortunately, this isn’t news to most of us, as the Gophers have frequently struggled to take advantage of open three-point attempts. They shot much better against Toledo, so hopefully it’s a sign of better things to come. But if disrupting their offense is as easy as taking away their inside game with a zone … [shakes head].
Trevor Mbakwe ties scholarship to success – Not sure how long it’ll be until Mbakwe is banned from using social media while playing for the U, but it’s probably not far away. No stranger to head-scratching controversy, Mbakwe found himself in hot water again after he tweeted that he would refund his scholarship in full if the Gophers failed to make the NCAA Tournament. It was quite the gracious offer, but after a slight media backlash he decided to take down the tweets; probably for the better. Trevor certainly means well, but good lord, someone take his phone away before something un-retractable happens again. For reference, here’s what he said:
“I love my teammates. They have always been there for me. If we don't make the tourney ill pay back this years scholarship. #nolie #gophers”
Love the enthusiasm; the execution needs some work.
Tag(s): Gopher Basketball