When Austin is firing on all cylinders, good things happen.
Coming out of the gauntlet that was the opening to Minnesota’s Big Ten season, things were expected to ease up just a little. They had a subpar Northwestern team on the docket, a trip to Madison that, while difficult, was less daunting than previous years, and two home contests against teams in the bottom half of the conference. Things were looking rosy for the Gophers, right?
Not so fast. The nature of the college basketball beast is unpredictability, and the “soft” stretch of the Gopher schedule was just that. They extended their losing streak to four games with two out-of-character performances against Northwestern and Wisconsin before seemingly righting the ship against Nebraska. And before it was all said and done they ran into a suddenly-lively Iowa team that took them to the wire.
The once-riveting Gopher offense, which had scored less than 70 points only twice in its previous 18 games, has now failed to top that mark in three of the last four games, being held to less than 50 in two of them. Is that a sign of more trouble on the horizon? Even after an explosive performance against Nebraska, Minnesota fell back into its lackadaisical half-court offense against Iowa, showing many of the poor characteristics that have haunted them not only this season, but in the past. And while they pulled out the win over the Hawkeyes, it’s hard to overlook the recent string of sleepy performances.
But with several winnable games on the immediate horizon, the Gophers have a good opportunity to solidly position themselves in the upper half of the Big Ten and keep themselves in the national conversation. The wheels are still on, folks.
Austin Hollins regains his rhythm – In all honesty, there hasn’t been a whole lot of “good” the past few weeks. Outside of obliterating Nebraska and the final few minutes against Iowa things have been relatively miserable compared to earlier in the season. Part of that misery was the apparent disappearance of Austin Hollins who, along with the rest of the team, didn’t look right against either Northwestern or Wisconsin. In those two games he shot 2-15, went 1-7 from long range, scored eight total points and fouled out of the Northwestern game at the 11:47 mark in the second half, leaving the keys to Julian Welch. For one of the more consistent players on the team, seeing him struggle in back to back games was an indicator of the team as a whole.
The Nebraska and Iowa games, however, offered Hollins a chance to regain the consistency that he had previously lost track of. And with two games of him filling up the stat sheet with points, rebounds, steals and overall heady play, it looks more and more like the two road games were just aberrations. Of course, Hollins’ importance to team can’t be overstated. He impacts the game on several levels and is one of the few game changers on both sides of the ball. With him out of action against Northwestern, for instance, the dynamic changed. When Austin is firing on all cylinders, good things happen.
Where’s the bench? – At first it was kind of a peculiar side note: the Gopher bench wasn’t really impacting the game. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something to take note. But as the season now turns to February and the games pile up, we’re realizing that having reliable depth is an important factor in closing out games and keeping starting players from being overworked. Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that Minnesota has a slim set of contributors after the starting five and is in dire need of a player or two who can hold serve when called upon. How bad has it gotten? The zero total bench points against Iowa marked the second game this season in which the bench failed to record a point. In fact, the bench didn’t even attempt a shot in 32 total minutes. And it’s increasingly difficult to identify a player the team can rely on when one of the starters needs a break.
Though he’s become a decent deep threat, Maverick Ahanmisi can hardly be trusted to dribble more than 10 feet. Julian Welch, a decent shooter, is turnover prone and a liability on defense. Elliott Eliason appears to be gaining confidence, but is still relegated to being a defensive stopper and doling out fouls. The rest of the players are an uninspiring collection of minute-eaters and role players. And when a starter needs a breather or gets into foul trouble patching the hole has been difficult. It was particularly evident when Austin Hollins went down with five fouls against Northwestern and Welch was forced into expanded action. While he didn’t sink the ship, he looked uncomfortable in extended floor time and was clearly an ineffective substitute for Hollins. And this is just one example of Tubby not having options when he has to play a sixth man for extended periods of time
The starting five obviously get a lion’s share of the minutes; does this make it more difficult or put extra pressure on the reserves to perform when they are thrust into action? Is it hard for them to get into the flow of the game? These are legitimate questions, but perhaps a more important aspect is giving needed rest to the starters without worrying about losing control of the game. Running each starter for 30+ minutes in each game the rest of the season is an unsustainable workload, and being able to out-hustle teams will hinge on having fresher players on the floor. Iowa relied heavily on their bench against Minnesota and got the better of many 50/50 plays that had a direct impact on the game. It’s hard not to wonder if fresher legs for Minnesota would have won some of those battles.
Top 100 Wins – Minnesota’s RPI is a fun topic of discussion this year, mainly because it’s so high at 9. One important component of the RPI is quality wins, and the Gophers are full of them this season. In fact, along with Miami, the Gophers have the most wins (11) in the nation over teams with an RPI in the top 100.
The big wins for the Gophers are obvious – Memphis, Michigan State and Illinois (okay, maybe the Illini are not so obvious). However, there have been a handful of wins this year that might not immediately stick out as important wins. Richmond, for instance, currently has an RPI of 75, making the relatively easy win early in the year quite worthwhile. Other “easy” wins that are paying dividends include SDSU (69) and NDSU (72) – teams the Gophers rolled over early in the season. Even Nebraska, a bottom dweller in the Big Ten clocks in with an RPI of 80, making the win more than just a standard conference win. With the B1G very strong this year, the relative RPI of the entire conference rises with the tide creating quality wins over even the bottom tier of the conference. And the true road win over Florida State (66) continues to look good on paper, even with the team’s struggles.
The Gophers might not have a handful of super wins over top national talent, but don’t overlook the fact that they have almost a dozen wins over many of the better teams in the country.
Tag(s): Gopher Basketball