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Scouting the Gophers: Q&A With Our Minnesota Friends

What do we need to know about Minnesota? Let a couple of Gophers give you the lowdown.

Andy Lyons

UCLA takes on Minnesota tomorrow, who like the Bruins, are a mystery. There's talent, there are depth issues and there is the maddening habit of not showing up some games. There is also one other similarity: both teams have coaches on the hot seat.

So as we get ready to take on the Gophers, who better to turn to than our Minnesota friends for some insight on Tubby Smith's squad. We let The Daily Gopher's GoAUpher and Steve Bailey of From the Barn break it down for us.

The Gophers got off to a torrid start (15-1) this season before slumping with a 5-11 finish. Why did you stumble down the stretch and do you expect to see the early season or late season Gophers on Friday?

GoAUpher: How much time do you have? Here's the quick and dirty list of why the Gophers went from a #8 ranked team to an 11 seed:

- Too many turnovers
- Poor shooting (both from the floor and the line)
- Defensive lapses
- Inability to break down a zone defense
- Stagnant half court sets
- Lack of confidence
- Failure to show up for road games

Now, obviously some of those are related to each other and the team wouldn't do all of them wrong all of the time (though the games they did...woof). But they usually strung together some combo of the above in their losses. TO's have been a problem all season though, even when winning. The key to the Gophers winning with turnovers is simply to limit them (20% and below is a pretty good baseline for them). Lack of confidence is a wild card. No one knows which Gopher team will come out of the locker room on Friday. Will it be the tough minded SOB's who imposed their will on Indiana? Or the listless, tentative group that showed up in so many of the recent losses?

Steve: Ah, the annual "late conference swoon." Tanking it in the latter half of the season has quickly become the norm for the Gophers, and it marks the third straight season that Minnesota has fallen apart down the stretch. This year is more baffling to me than past years, however, because A) everyone is healthy; and B) there hasn't been any off-court drama (Minnesota basketball players have had some, uh, "slip-ups" with the law in recent years). A big part of the swoon has been lack of scoring and they've had trouble in the half-court offense ever since Northwestern paralyzed them with a 1-3-1 zone. After that their confidence was severely undercut and they've played timid in most games since. It's hard to win in conference play without confidence.

I'd like to say that it's a new season now for the Gophers, but I'm just not sure. They haven't played as a cohesive unit since the Indiana win. At the very least it will be a grind it out game where both teams struggle to execute on offense.

How would you describe the Gophers' half-court offense and how can the Bruins slow it down?

GoAUpher: The Bruins probably don't need to slow it down as there's a very good chance that Minnesota will do that for them. Honestly, their half court offense is ugly a lot of the time. The Gophers often struggle to get the ball inside to Trevor Mbakwe, our most dominant player. And they're willing to settle for bad jump shots even though shooting is often a weak point. The half court offense is at its best when the Gophers are penetrating or if they are having a hot shooting night to make up for the lack of screens and ball movement. And don't get me started on our zone offense...

Steve: Is there a word for "6th grade B-squad"? Seriously, the Gophers half-court game is unreliable at best and downright atrocious when they really get on a roll. They use their superior rebounding ability to corral their own misses and get easy baskets, but they don't have any sort of sharpshooter, natural point guard or cohesive offensive scheme. I blame this mostly on Tubby Smith, who's done a poor job of preparing the team to face certain opponents this year. That said, Minnesota is dangerous when they have a size advantage, since they can essentially rebound their misses until they get a basket.

If the Bruins really want to walk away with the victory they'll deploy a zone; it's Minnesota's kryptonite. They legitimately have no earthly idea how to attack one. In fact, it's embarrassing to watch. I sometimes think that a well-coached high school team could deploy a zone against the Gophers and shut them down. It's really that bad.

Minnesota feasts on opposition turnovers, but UCLA does a pretty good job of taking care of the ball. If the Bruins don't turn it over, how much trouble are the Gophers in?

GoAUpher: That depends on what else is going on. The Gophers can survive without creating many turnovers if they also take care of the ball. A significant rebounding advantage has also been helped Minnesota overcome an imbalance in terms of TO's. But if Minnesota is turning the ball over not getting many in return, I'd have some pretty significant concerns about whether they win the game.

Steve: Minnesota is definitely a defense-first team, but it isn't particularly adept at turning TOs into points, so that's not a huge worry for me. They've won plenty of games this year where their opponent has turned it over only 7-10 times. Now, if the Gophers are the ones turning it over then they can really fall flat. They don't score in droves, so if they're beating themselves by turning it over they're at a huge disadvantage.

Do you have any concerns about Minnesota's depth and if so, how do you think the Bruins can take advantage of that?

GoAUpher: Depth is a definite issue for the Gophers. The biggest problem has been that the Gophers can't establish a rotation that makes sense. Tubby often seems wed to the idea of taking a bunch (or all) of the starters out at the same time. Despite that, he still hasn't found a true go-to guy off the bench. The closest sub to being a go-to guy is probably Elliott Eliason. He's not a huge scoring threat, but he has been taking on the role of "tough big guy sub", playing strong defense, blocking shots, and crashing the boards.

I'd love to give you another name to watch out for but honestly, I don't have one. All of the guards who come off the bench have been so hit or miss depending on the game. I would expect to see quite a bit of Maverick Ahanmisi, especially if Andre Hollins gets into foul trouble. Andre Ingram and Oto Osenieks will also make appearances.

Steve: The difference between Minnesota's starting five and their bench is like night and day. They have guys who can contribute, but there is no legitimate 6th or 7th guy who they can rely on. There's basically the starters and the rest of the team. So, yes, depth is a concern. If the Bruins can get Trevor Mbakwe or Andre Hollins into any sort of foul trouble early on (which actually happens quite frequently) then it's almost assured that they'll sit the rest of the half. Tubby has this annoying habit of sitting his starters for the duration of a half if they pick up their 2nd foul early. It's terrible.

A lot of talk so far has been about Minnesota's ability to crash the boards and hurt UCLA's weakness rebounding, but there was a big drop off in the Gophers' rebounding numbers from non-conference play to Big 10 play. How good of a rebounding team is Minnesota really?

GoAUpher: Very good, at least on the offensive glass. They've struggled to be a consistent defensive rebounding team. If Minnesota has a big advantage in this category due to offensive rebounding then I'll be quite confident in a victory. It's not a cure all for the other problems though (especially turnovers, which are an even greater sin than normal in games where the Gophers are killing their opponent on the offensive glass).

Steve: The Gophers had an athletic advantage in each of their non-conference games outside of the Battle 4 Atlantis, so it's not surprising there was a drop-off. They basically scored at will against their low-major opponents. However, they were still the best rebounding team in the Big Ten during conference play by a long shot. In fact, I'd say it's their greatest advantage. They rebound something like 40% of their own misses, which provides many opportunities for second chance points, and is a main area of their success on offense.

The Gophers seem to send everyone to the offensive glass. Does that leave them vulnerable on the break and how can UCLA take advantage of that?

GoAUpher: There's room to run on them, but the Gophers are pretty good about getting back in transition. Where they often struggle is matching up with shooters off transition. If UCLA can exploit that and hit 3's? The Gophers could be in trouble.

Steve: They can get beat on transition, but that doesn't strike me as a particularly vulnerable part of their game. They're a fast team as well, so they don't get caught with opponents running them up the floor too often. Mbakwe and Rodney Williams do a lot of their rebounding, so you don't see the guards crashing the glass too much. Again, the Gophers are a great team defensively, and don't give up a whole lot of points. Their biggest weakness is probably the three-point line, which is where UCLA can make them pay. Minnesota's focus is on taking away the inside game, which leaves them susceptible to open three pointers. The opportunities will be there; it's just a matter of converting.

Is Tubby Smith on the hot seat? And since AD Norwood Teague hired Shaka Smart at VCU, is there any hope that the Gophers can make a run at Smart if Smith is shown the door?

GoAUpher: His seat is quite toasty. How toasty depends on whether or not you think our new AD is willing to fire Tubby despite a pretty sizable buyout ($2.5 million). The other factor is that while his tenure has been underwhelming compared to the expectations his hiring created, his actual results in terms of NCAA tourney berths is at the program's historical average. Even his conference winning % isn't that far below the program's average. The biggest issues have been how he's lost (3 consecutive seasons with Feb/March collapses, bad losses to horrible teams) and the fact that this season's team has woefully underachieved.

Personally, I think firing him after this year is a bad idea because I doubt many quality mid-major coaches will want the job based on Tubby getting fired despite meeting program averages, lack of a practice facility, etc. As a result, the Gophers will end up taking a flyer on a less proven mid-major with a high chance of remaining what they are now...mediocre. I'd rather see them keep Tubby for one more year and work hard at getting the practice facility under way so that new coaches can be shown tangible proof that the U is investing in the program. All that said, I'm not a Tubby supporter. I'm fed up with the recurring themes of his tenure (late season collapses, teams that appear woefully underprepared for simple things like zone offense, etc) and I'm very confident that what we're getting now is what we'll get from Tubby moving forward. The dream scenario is Tubby pulling a Tubby (i.e. beating the heat by taking a new job) or retiring. Then the hire process doesn't have the "fired a respected coach" issue to contend with.

Are people hopeful that we'd be able to make a run at Shaka if Tubby goes? Well, we'd love it if it happened, but I sincerely doubt it does. Shaka has turned down better jobs with more advantages than Minnesota before. Unless his bond with Teague is very strong, I don't see why he'd come to the U.

Steve: Smith is definitely on the hot seat, and fans are not happy with where the program is in his sixth season. I think most people expected to be finishing near the top of the conference by now and not merely sneaking into the tournament as an 11 seed. And with his struggles this season with arguably the best team he's had here, people are rightfully frustrated. In fact, I wrote my own "Fire Tubby" post earlier this season and haven't wavered from that position.

In terms of replacements, though, that's a tougher deal. Smart's name has been thrown around a lot and Teague's connection to VCU is definitely there, but there hasn't been an official connection shown between Smart and Minnesota. Flip Saunders is a candidate who is often talked about but, at this point, it's hard to speculate because it's not even confirmed that Tubby Smith is going anywhere.

What would you consider the Gophers' "x factor," as in this one thing/player will most determine whether Minnesota wins or loses?

GoAUpher: I'll go with either Austin Hollins. I'm confident in the ability of Trevor Mbakwe and Andre Hollins to perform (assuming the non-lethargic team shows up). But if Austin Hollins is able to get hot, that would be huge for the Gophers.

Steve: If the Gophers can avoid beating themselves then I think they'll win this game. They've gotten into an awful habit of turning the ball over and committing dumb fouls early on, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage. In short, they shoot themselves in the foot early and often. Keeping Andre Hollins and Trevor Mbakwe out there as long as possible means they're getting more minutes from two of their leading scorers and their leading rebounder. That's a huge advantage.


GoAUpher: I have no idea. Seriously. We just don't know which Gopher team will come to play on Friday. If it's a motivated Gopher team then I see them winning. An energetic Minnesota squad can dominate UCLA on the glass which should be enough to overcome less than stellar play in other areas. But if they show up and clearly don't care, playing with no heart? Yea, that could get ugly.

Since I have no idea which team will show up I'm going to be a optimist, assume the "good" Gophers come to play, and predict a 68-63 victory.

Steve: I'm a Minnesotan, so I'm bred to foresee and accept failure. Ordinarily I'd actually pick Minnesota to win this game, but they never do well when they're "expected" to win big games and perform well with their backs to the wall. With the broader national audience already seemingly handing this game to the Gophers I think they don't take the Bruins seriously and lay an egg in this one. I'm taking UCLA 65-62.