The Big Ten has been ranked as the best conference in the country for most of the 2012-13 season, and for that to happen, there is usually a handful of teams that exceed expectations. Illinois, early-on, made its way into the AP top-ten before coming back down to earth, and during the season, annual contenders (Wisconsin) and rebuilding teams (Purdue and Iowa) have played better than pre-season polls indicated.
Then, we have Minnesota, who was ranked as high as fourth in the conference pre-season standings and raced-out to a 15-1 record to start the season, but has failed to meet expectations, going 3-8 in their last 11 games. With arguably the best talent-set in the conference, outside of Indiana and Michigan, the Golden Gophers have limped-along to a 6-8 conference record (18-9 overall), going 1-6 away from Williams Arena. The only non-conference, quality win, came against Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
Minnesota has gotten excellent production from the guards. Led by PG Andre Hollins, who leads the team with 13.6 ppg and 90 assists, and SG Austin Hollins (11.1 ppg); both also have positive assist-to-turnover ratios. Joe Coleman, the third member of their three-guard set, has contributed 9.0 ppg with his inside/outside game. Defensively, this trio is responsible for the Golden Gophers’ number two conference ranking in steals.
The team is blessed with two of the most physical and experienced forwards in college basketball, in seniors Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior, has seen his scoring average decrease (9.5 ppg), but leads the conference in rebounding (8.5 rpg) and is second in blocked shots. Williams, a superior athlete, is both a scoring (10.9 ppg) and rebounding (5.2 rpg) threat. The Golden Gophers are one of the better rebounding teams in the conference, ranking fourth in rebounds/game (38.9) and second in rebounding margin (8.3/game).
So what gives? Minnesota ranks in the middle of the pack in scoring (69.1/game- 7th) and points allowed (61.6/game- 6th), which stands to reason with their 6-8 conference record. It comes down to three things; bench scoring/depth, lack of leadership, and coaching.
The Golden Gophers are last in the conference in bench scoring at 18.5 ppg, with no player scoring more than 3.6 ppg (Maverick Ahanmisi). While many programs have to deal with short benches, Minnesota gives more minutes than usual to their role players, backed-up by the fact that not one starter ranks in the top ten in the conference in minutes played, and only one player (Austin Hollins) averages more than 30 minutes/game.
Leadership, especially in close games, appears to be lacking. Mbakwe, despite leading the conference in rebounding and seemingly being around the program forever, is the team leader, but has been more passive this season, likely due the effects of his knee injury. Andre Hollins, the quarterback of the team, is just a sophomore, and sometimes hides in crunch-time. No other player has been willing to grab the reigns.
The saying that “coaches get too much credit when the team wins and too much criticism when the team loses” probably applies here, but there are some facets to this season that coach Tubby Smith has to take responsibility for. Coach Smith is very-well respected in the basketball community and does have an NCAA Championship on his resume while he was at Kentucky.
The playing time, divided by starters and bench players, was mentioned earlier. While no one knows their team better than the head coach, it does stand to reason that more playing time should be devoted to the starters, especially when looking at their bench production. Coach Smith does a lot of mass-substituting, wherein several starters may be out of the game for an inordinate amount of time.
Watching Minnesota play, you have to be concerned with the up-and-down level of intensity. While no team that ranks high in the conference in rebounding and steals can be considered passive, the consistency of intensity throughout their games is pretty evident, and that falls on the coach. Many times, especially in close games, the Golden Gophers have appeared lost on defense, getting confused on switches and over-extending the defense, creating easy baskets for their opponents.
Offensively, the team can get very turnover-prone, as witnessed in their last two losses versus Ohio State and Iowa, where the team committed 24 and 17 turnovers, respectively. Minnesota ranks near the bottom of the conference in turnover margin (-0.63). This falls into the lack of offensive execution and discipline, which is seen in even more glaring terms at the end of close ballgames. Bottom line; Coach Smith’s team has been under-performing based on their talent level.
With two weeks to go in Big Ten season, Indiana has a semi-comfortable lead at the top of the standings, but there are several teams that are still within striking distance and want to build momentum as we head into the tournament season. This will be a light week, as far as the top contenders are concerned, but the best games of the week include, Indiana @ Minnesota on Feb 26th and the battle for Michigan, as the Spartans travel to Ann Arbor on March 3rd to take-on the Wolverines.
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Indiana 2. Michigan State 3. Michigan 4. Wisconsin 5. Ohio State 6. Illinois 7. Minnesota 8. Purdue 9. Iowa 10. Northwestern 11. Nebraska 12. Penn State