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Conference Play Is Here

I think someday a pitcher will win the Cy Young award with a high ERA because he plays on a bad defensive team and the voters will acknowledge that his high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is an an indicator of bad luck, not poor pitching. Maybe that is crazy talk, but having seen how quickly Ken Pomeroy’s work has permeated college basketball, I truly believe that there will only be more advanced analytics in the future, not less.

And in a world where computers can write game recaps using the box score, in a world where Synergy Sports is tracking every pick-and-roll play, and in a world where cameras track the effectiveness of zone defense, I often wonder what is left for the true game-observer. (Perhaps we are left to determine whether Michigan St.’s Branden Dawson punched Purdue’s Travis Carroll.) But if there is something that advanced metrics can never take away, it is the feeling of what it means to be a fan:

- A computer can never describe how satisfying it was for Peyton Siva and the Louisville seniors to beat Kentucky a few weeks ago. It was more than a quality resume win. Ending the losing streak against the in-state rival and college basketball’s defending champs was much more than just a win.

- A computer can never truly describe frustration. Cincinnati fans already angered to be stuck in the Big East after all the conference shuffling, pulled out their lack of respect card, only to suffer two painful home losses to St. John’s and Notre Dame.

- A computer can never describe what it means to want a coaching change. While most Texas fans support Rick Barnes, a small but growing contingent has never believed in his ability to win big games. And for those fans, the early season struggles combined with two brutal OT losses to start Big 12 play confirm that Barnes always mismanages the big moments.

- A computer can never describe what it means to dream. When Michigan fans see Glenn Robinson skying for a dunk they daydream about how this really is the best team since the Fab Four.

- A computer can never describe optimism. When Kansas fans started the season they were frustrated to see a team that didn’t look like a true national contender. But after watching Ben McLemore begin to develop in December, and after watching McLemore score 33 points in an OT win against Iowa St., they are starting to believe their young star can put the team on his back.

- A computer can never describe the feeling of being cursed. Just when Providence fans though they had a good team with Kris Dunn and Sidiki Johnson joining the fold, and just when they took a lead against Syracuse at home, there was the team blowing it in the second half once again.

- And a computer can never really describe the feeling of redemption, when a team that has been bad comes back to relevance. Towson, a team that won one game last year, improved to 3-0 in the CAA after a thrilling double OT win over William & Mary.

Speaking of teams with unexpectedly pleasant starts to the season, Minnesota met Illinois in Wednesday’s marquee Top 15 match-up. This wasn’t a game that we had circled on the calendar in November, but after a 14-1 start for the Gophers and after the Gophers earned a Top 10 computer ranking, and after Illinois crushed Butler, Gonzaga, and Ohio St., all eyes were tuned to this game.

#8 Minnesota vs #12 Illinois

First Half

16:31 Brandon Paul’s dunk over Trevor Mbakwe somehow resulted in an offensive foul and a bucket. I’m not sure how this is even technically possible. Doesn’t the ball need to be out of the offensive players hands for the contact not to negate the bucket? When you run through a player and then dunk, I’m pretty sure the basket should be waved off.

- 30 seconds later Brandon Paul went to the bench with what at first appeared to be a contact lens problem, but what was later revealed to be a bloody nose. Off to the locker-room for a jersey change, Paul would be back.

- One of the things that constantly amazes me about college basketball games is how teams have a certain defensive intensity in the first four minutes that they just cannot keep up. Minnesota’s offensive rebounding numbers suggest they have a tremendous physical advantage over Illinois in the paint. But in the first four minutes of the game, Illinois played lock down defense and Minnesota could barely get a post-touch.

- Rodney Williams hits a surprise three, only his fifth of the season. The announcers were surprised as well. This means it is time to show the Luke Winn info-graphic where no elite team relies less on threes than the Gophers. (See #11 for the graphic.)

- Meanwhile, Minnesota PG Andre Hollins hit a three to tie the game at 11. Then Hollins made an even bigger play when he got Illinois PG Tracy Abrams to commit his second foul of the game. Abrams lack of minutes was a huge factor in the final outcome and Hollins helped make it happen.

Why Minnesota is Back

To understand Minnesota’s resurgence, you have to go back to the 2011 season when the Gophers lost both their point guards. One was lost to transfer and one was lost to injury.

I recently debated the merits of clutch play. I claimed that I wouldn’t look for evidence of clutch play with free throws. When I was thinking of clutch play I was thinking of something else. I was thinking of what happened when Minnesota didn’t have a point-guard on the floor in 2011. While the Gophers were extremely competitive, and managed to keep just about every game close, without a true point-guard on the floor, they had almost no chance to win in close game situations.

Players that were fine ball-handlers in the first 35 minutes, suddenly started coughing it up in every situation. And I’m not just talking about when they faced full-court pressure. I’m talking about random turnovers when executing post feeds and passing around on the perimeter. Free throw shooting isn’t the only place where inexperience and nerves can cause a player to fail. Clutch play may be an overused concept, but I’m convinced Minnesota’s close losses that season were not a fluke. They simply lacked the ball-handlers to survive in the pressure of late game situations.

And this brings us to 2012. This should be the part where Andre Hollins entered the conversation. But Hollins was injured early in the 2012 season for Minnesota, and that meant Julian Welch took over as PG for the Gophers. Welch played out-of-his-mind for three months. He didn’t come in with a reputation as a dominant three point shooter, but there he was making over 40% of his threes. And there he was manning the ship rather effectively in the non-conference season. The only problem was that Welch wasn’t really a Big Ten point guard. And once teams figured out they could rather easily keep Welch in front of them, they didn’t sag off, and Welch’s three point shooting plummeted. And Welch’s inability to penetrate became a real liability as the Gophers had another pitiful finish to a Big Ten season.

But then something happened. Starting in the Big Ten Tournament and on into the 2013 season, Andre Hollins developed into Minnesota’s most important player. Hollins isn’t necessarily Minnesota’s best player. That title still probably belongs to Trevor Mbakwe or Rodney Williams. But Hollins became the most important.

Certainly Hollins scoring helped. He displayed that in force during the team’s run to the NIT title game. And he showed it by notching 41 against Memphis in the Bahamas this season. But it was Hollins ability to finish ball-games that has made him the true star of the team. Against Michigan St., the Gophers were down late in the game, and Hollins put the team on his back in leading a 22-4 run. Hollins not only made his free throws and guided the offense, but he also put the team on his back. Even with Michigan St. playing great defense, Hollins showed he could still make a tough basket.

And whether clutch play is real or not, I’m going to continue to believe in something that I have not measured. Because my eyes tell me Minnesota is a different team with Andre Hollins in the lineup.

First Half Continued

At this point, Tubby Smith made his normal substitution and brought in five bench players. I love how the announcers like to say that Minnesota has a deep team with 10-11 players in the rotation. That may be true, but you judge depth on whether a team has quality coming off the bench. Indiana has depth. Minnesota has players.

And predictably things went wrong with Minnesota’s subs. Elliot Eliason had his worst game of the season. He only got “credit” for one turnover in his two minutes, but his bad positioning contributed to three Gopher turnovers. The third came on an offensive foul and Tubby had no choice but to put Trevor Mbakwe back in the game.

Meanwhile, Oto Osenieks missed his usual jumper. Osenieks has improved recently for Minnesota. He doesn’t seem to be taking nearly as many extremely questionable threes, but he still doesn’t quite understand that his best asset is crashing the glass and defending. Those qualities will earn him playing time. His shooting only hurts his cause.

But then Minnesota started attacking in transition. They used a couple of Illinois’ long misses to get transition buckets, and at the half the Gophers led by 4.

Stats fans knew this heading into the game.

1)     Minnesota was the #1 offensive rebounding team in the nation grabbing a ridiculous 49.7% of their misses.

2)     Illinois made more threes than any team in the nation, and relied on threes for 37% of their points.

So of course at halftime, Minnesota had grabbed 25% of the offensive boards and Illinois was 3 of 19 from three point range.

Second Half

18:40 Minnesota had a sequence that basically defines the team. A series of events showed their strengths and weaknesses all at once. Minnesota

-blocked a shot

-nearly turned the ball over

-fed an outlet pass to a player who took an open three

-missed the three

-rebounded their own miss

-passed the ball to a player for a basket and one

That really is the Gophers season in a nutshell.

16:15 Andre Hollins saw the shot-clock winding down and was one step from half-court, but he put up a prayer shot and it went in. This gave Minnesota a 42-30 lead.

At this point Illinois’ Tracy Abrams finally woke up and realized foul trouble or not, he needed to take over. Illinois was caught in a huge funk taking contested and bad threes, and Abrams finally changed the formula. He drove to the basket three times for six points and finally got the crowd in the game. As important as Brandon Paul is for Illinois, Tracy Abrams is just as important. New head coach Jim Groce wanted to start the season with Abrams coming off the bench, but he just couldn’t. Abrams just works too hard and does too many little things not to start him. He has to be out there for Illinois to succeed. And when no one else on Illinois could realize that getting lay-ups might increase the odds of winning, Abrams single-handedly changed the momentum of the game.

But then things went wrong. With the lead down to two and the ball in Illinois’ hands, the crowd was in a frenzy. But two plays sealed the Gopher victory. First, Abrams made a bad pass that led to a Austin Hollins steal and Minnesota lay-up. And then  Andre Hollins got another steal that led to an intentional foul call. After a pair of free throws and three, the lead was up to nine. Illinois went from being down two with the ball to down nine without even getting a shot off in between. And with some late baskets against full-court pressure, Minnesota blew open a game that was otherwise close.

Final Note: If you look up the box score, you’ll see Minnesota’s Joe Coleman scored a career high 29 points. That is normally a good sign for the future, but this performance seemed completely un-repeatable. The vast majority of those buckets came in transition opportunities, and a number came late when Illinois was applying full-court pressure. Coleman did remarkably make two threes in the game. Coleman is sensational at attacking the basket, but didn’t quite put the time in the gym this summer to develop a three point shot. But I guess this shows that on days when you score over 20, you tend to make your threes too.

 

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