Big Ten Wonk
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Sweet defense, sour offense. Meet Minnesota.
Today I continue my alphabetically sensitive preseason walk-arounds of each Big Ten team with some thoughts on that surprising band of who-dats from Minneapolis, proud members of the Big Ten since its founding in 1896....

Last year
21-11 overall, 10-6 in conference. Lost in NCAA first round to Iowa State, 64-53.

Vincent Grier (17.9 PPG, 1.09 PPWS, 9.5 reb. pct., 3.9 assists per 100 possessions)
Dan Coleman (8.3 PPG, 0.98 PPWS, 10.1 reb. pct., 2.3 a/100 poss.)
Rico Tucker (5.8 PPG, 0.96 PPWS, 5.3 reb. pct., 6.3 a/100 poss.)
J'son Stamper (4.9 PPG, 1.01 PPWS, 16.9 reb. pct., 2.3 a/100 poss.)
Spencer Tollackson (3.2 PPG, 0.89 PPWS, 10.1 reb. pct., 3.2 a/100 poss.)

Maurice Hargrow (6-5 G, returning after abortive transfer to Arkansas--11.4 PPG in 2003-04)
Adam Boone (6-3 G, medical redshirt--8.4 PPG in 2003-04)
Jonathan Williams (6-9 F, medical redshirt)
Brandon Smith (6-6 G/F, Minneapolis)
Damian Johnson (6-7 F, Thibodaux, LA)
Kevin Payton (6-6 G, Camden, NJ)
Jamal Abu-Shamala (6-5 G, Shakopee, MN)

Jeff Hagen (11.2 PPG, 1.17 PPWS, 13.7 reb. pct., 4.7 a/100 poss.)
Aaron Robinson (8.4 PPG, 1.19 PPWS, 4.8 reb. pct. 5.2 a/100 poss.)
Brent Lawson (7.3 PPG, 1.23 PPWS, 7.8 reb. pct., 4.1 a/100 poss.)

Official motto for 2005-06
"Our coach looks more like Jeff Bezos than your coach."

What we think we know in November
Minnesota games last year followed a certain pattern. So long as the Gophers were participating it didn't really matter which team had the ball: the offense was going to look bad and the defense was going to look good.

That's because last season Minnesota had both the best defense in the Big Ten and the conference's worst non-Penn-State offense. Which means there are essentially three questions facing Gopher coach Dan Monson this season.

1. Can the defense be that sweet again?
It won't be easy. Minnesota was better than good on D last year--they were outstanding.

Here are the best defenses from last year in the so-called "power" conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, C-USA, Pac-10, SEC):

Defensive efficiency: opponent points per possession
(2005, conference games only)
1. Louisville (0.89)
2. North Carolina (0.90)
3. Washington State (0.91)
4. Iowa State (0.92)
5. Minnesota (0.92)
6. Connecticut (0.93)
7. St. Louis (0.93)
8. Illinois (0.94)
9. Alabama (0.94)
10. Cincinnati (0.94)
11. Kentucky (0.94)
12. Memphis (0.94)

(Granted, the numbers aren't directly comparable across conferences. Rather, Iowa State was as good defensively in Big 12 games as Minnesota was in Big Ten games.)

The Gophers achieved this lofty defensive status by doing two things better than any other team in the Big Ten: getting turnovers and guarding shooters.

Can they get as many turnovers from their opponents again this year? Here's how last year's leaders in steals look in tempo-free terms:

Minnesota: steals per 100 individual possessions
(2005, all games)
1. Rico Tucker (4.9)
2. Brent Lawson (3.6)
3. Vincent Grier (3.2)
4. Aaron Robinson (3.1)

While Grier's back this year, Tucker's status is in doubt (he's been placed on "academic lockdown" by Monson), and Lawson and Robinson are gone. Tucker is a TO-creating monster and, other things being equal, it'd certainly be handy to have him around. The larger issue, though, is that Tucker and his mates on the perimeter were freed up to overplay out top last year because a certain big guy was guarding the post--a certain big guy who's no longer around....

Jeff Hagen was the only seven-footer in the Big Ten last year that I couldn't beat up, the only seven-footer with some heft. By his very presence he contributed mightily to the Gophers having a very good defense. He will be missed: his teammates could take some chances on D knowing Hagen, literally, had their back.

As proof of Hagen's worth allow me to refer you to a surprising piece of evidence: the Gophers' unexpectedly bad defensive 2FG pct. This blogger wonders if perhaps opponents shot so well inside the arc because the Minnesota interior defense was so outstanding. (Wha?....)

Repeat of outlandish hunch: the Gophers had an atrocious defensive 2FG pct. last year because their interior defense was so outstanding....

Opponents tried to avoid the strong Minnesota interior D by shooting before the Gophers--and most especially the not particularly Dee Brown-fast Hagen--got set in their half-court D. (And, indeed, the Gophers on occasion tried to counter their own offensive woes by shooting before the opponent got set in their half-court D.)

Result: Minnesota played the fastest games in the Big Ten last year. And they were able to offset the number of two-point baskets they gave up because they played outstanding perimeter D (holding opponents to just 27.4 shooting on their threes) and, as seen above, because they forced so many turnovers.

Only problem: that was then. And Hagen's gone. So I'm skeptical of the Gophers' chances of achieving 2005-level defense again in 2006.

But if by some chance they do repeat this level of performance, then assistant coach Jim Molinari, the man widely credited for last year's defensive turnaround, will deserve a lot of attention and praise.

2. Will the offense be that sour again?
After the Gophers' first exhibition game this season, Vincent Grier was quoted as follows: "Offense is not the problem for us. We just have to keep playing and step up our defensive intensity."

Let's see, here, how can I put this politely....Grier couldn't have been more diametrically incorrect if he'd said, "Jim Carrey's subtle nuances are what keep me coming back for more," or, "I want to hear more about the Valerie Plame case--it affects my daily life so directly!" or, "With those 40-minute halftimes and clock-stoppages for each and every first down, college football games just go by too darn fast!"

Indeed, offense is the problem. The Gophers were bounced out of the tournament in the first round by Iowa State precisely because they played miserably on offense (though, granted, the Cyclones--in key respects the Minnesota of the Big 12--helped that outcome along with tremendous D). In that 64-53 loss, Minnesota scored an anemic 0.78 points per possession. (For comparison's sake, note that Penn State had the Big Ten's least efficient offense and averaged 0.90 points per possession in conference play.)

The crux of the problem is simple: Minnesota can't shoot very well. Only Penn State shot with less accuracy last year. Is the shooting going to improve for Dan Monson's team this year? Probably (simply because there's so much room for improvement)--but it's still not likely to be the Gophers' strong suit. This blogger searches the Minnesota roster in vain for a sure-thing interior scorer or lethal outside threat. Maybe one will emerge but until that happens the Gophers would do well to focus on hitting the offensive glass.

They'll likely need to.

3. Can the Gophers be as lucky as they were last year?
Canonical blogger Ryan Kobliska puts it most diplomatically: "A team that scores only five more points than its opponents will generally not go 10-6." Which is to say Minnesota caught its share of breaks last year, most memorably when they went to West Lafayette on February 26 desperate for a road win to get into the NCAA Tournament. Fortune smiled on the Gophers that day: Carl Landry went down with his season-ending knee injury midway through the first half and Minnesota eked out a 59-57 victory over the depleted Boilermakers.

BONUS note of irony! That being said, Minnesota also suffered what was probably the year's most improbable loss: their total collapse at home against Northwestern. The Gophers led that game by 10 with four minutes left and yet somehow lost to a team that did not win another game all year on an opponent's home floor. (Yes, yes, I know: Iowa collapsed against NU too. At least that was in Evanston.)

MVP Grier?
I'm hard pressed to find another player in the Big Ten more vital to his team than Vincent Grier is to Minnesota. Carl Landry, Dee Brown and Alando Tucker might come close--but subtract Grier from the Gophers and this team suddenly looks much more helpless.

Grier reminds this blogger of what Pierre Pierce could have been like if a mad scientist had given him a hoops personality transplant. The athleticism, hounding perimeter D, and drive-to-the-basket/draw-fouls aggressiveness of Pierce--but minus the turnovers and poor shot selection. What a concept! This summer Grier drew raves while playing alongside Shelden Williams, Gerry McNamara, and Craig Smith in the World University Games (a team that was coached by Villanova head man Jay Wright).

No, Grier has not as yet demonstrated an ability to hit the outside shot. But he adjusts accordingly, which is more than I can say for many players facing this same situation.

From the Wonk archives: ladies and gentlemen, Maurice Hargrow and Adam Boone!
Maurice Hargrow is back (someone tell to reflect that here, please) after a short-lived transfer to Arkansas. In 2004 the 6-5 guard averaged 11 points a game and shot 36.7 percent on his threes, which may make Hargrow the best bet Monson has this year for an outside threat.

And I say Hargrow may be the best bet because Adam Boone frankly terrifies this blogger with his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't outside shot. In 2002 at North Carolina, Boone saw very limited action, granted, but still shot 43.0 percent on his threes. In 2004 at Minnesota, conversely, Boone saw extended minutes and shot just 28.9 percent from beyond the arc. Volatility thy name is Boone!

Quick! The Coleman that plays for Minnesota--Ron or Dan?
(Dan) Coleman's a bit of an oddity: a finesse power forward, if there is such a thing. He hit 34.7 percent on his threes last year and that's a needed skill for the Gophers. At the same time he brings little to the table as far as boards, particularly for a guy listed at 6-9.

Tasmanian Devil J'son Stamper, Wonk salutes you!
For fans who like players that make things happen, I have the guy for you. Watch J'son Stamper and you will see a stat recorded. Probably not points, but a rebound, a turnover (his own), or a foul (that he commits)--Stamper makes all of the above happen in abundance. On the plus side he's one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten and, being only 6-6, that's saying something. (And if there's such a thing as a "clutch rebounder," it's Stamper, seemingly always the guy with the key board at the end of tight games.) On the other hand, for a player who was literally his team's seventh option on offense last year, the frequency with which he commits turnovers is little short of astonishing.

From Wonk's faint praise department
Spencer Tollackson played on the Big Ten team that toured Spain in the offseason and Bruce Weber, who coached the touring squad, has high praise for Tollackson's "energy." EXCLUSIVE Wonk translation: "energy" is a hoops euphemism for "unskilled" in about the same way that "possession receiver" is a football euphemism for "slow."

Health watch--oops, UPDATE: classroom watch....
Rico Tucker was ill last year and we didn't know it. He suffered during the later stages of the season from an immune deficiency known as Graves' disease. He had his thyroid removed in the offseason and is reported to be back to 100 percent. Now this fall Monson has, as noted above, placed Tucker on "academic lockdown," meaning, in effect, he doesn't practice with the team during the week.

Monson says he's going to play freshman Brandon Smith. As to the other freshmen--Damian Johnson, Kevin Payton (currently injured), and walk-on Jamal Abu-Shamala--it
sounds like Monson is thinking in terms of redshirts. Plural.

In today's less Wonk-ish venues....
Indiana big man D.J. White will miss six weeks due to a broken foot he suffered in the Hoosiers' first exhibition game last Friday night. White is reportedly encouraged, however, that he's projected to be back in time for IU's Big Ten opener on January 3. "If I'm going to be out, it's good to be out now," he said. Meanwhile, Hoosier guard A.J. Ratliff appears to be recovering from his thumb injury faster than initially expected. Coach Mike Davis now thinks Ratliff will be ready to play as soon as Indiana's November 21 game against Florida A&M.

Michigan coach Tommy Amaker says his sassy new-look (deeper) Wolverines will push the tempo this year. Wonk says: good! Instilling a little fear of transition in your opponents should help ameliorate last year's abysmal defensive rebounding. Let's see more 76-possession games like Saturday's exhibition against Grand Valley State.

In a piece contributed to, my fellow Twin Cities denizen Jeff Shelman says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has grown a real honest-to-goodness coaching tree! And the lil' sprouts are: Tom Crean (Marquette), Mike Garland (Cleveland State), Brian Gregory (Dayton), Stan Heath (Arkansas), Stan Joplin (Toledo), and Doug Wojcik (Tulsa).

The aforementioned and seemingly indefatigable Shelman can also be seen this morning profiling Bryce Webster, a Twin Cities product and 6-9 big man expected to sign a letter of intent with Minnesota today....The Gophers will host Minnesota-Duluth tomorrow night for an exhibition game and will see a familiar face in former Minnesota reserve and current UMD guard Jordan Nuness.

Iowa has received a verbal commitment from Justin Johnson, a 6-6 shooting guard at Tyler (TX) Community College. Johnson will join a 2006 recruiting class that already includes 6-10 Jamie Vanderbeken of Ontario and 6-7 juco transfer-to-be Cyrus Tate. Johnson's current coach, Mike Marquis, has sent players to Iowa City before, including Jacob Jaacks and Chauncey Leslie....The Hawkeyes will play an exhibition game against Division III Wartburg tonight in Iowa City. Ryan Kobliska at Hawkeye Hoops has scouted the, um (whatever the Wartburg Nickname is, plural), and has posted his game preview. Tonight's game will be the last appearance of the year for Kurt Looby, a 6-10 junior (and yet another Mike Marquis product!) who will take a redshirt this season. For his part Iowa coach Steve Alford says these D-III vs. D-I games give the players from the smaller school a thrill. “When I was coaching at the Division III level at Manchester, we had a chance to go to Ball State once, and I remember the excitement," Alford said without apparent irony.

Illinois guard Dee Brown was named a first-team preseason All-American by the Associated Press yesterday. Brown is joined on the first team by J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Adam Morrison, and Craig Smith. (Boston College and Smith have thus switched conferences in the nick of time to give the ACC three of the five preseason All-Americans.)...The Illini are struggling with injuries and illnesses heading into tonight's exhibition game against Division II Quincy. Warren Carter is recovering from surgery to repair his broken nose and will not dress for the game. James Augustine and Brian Randle are both recovering from the flu. (More from the infirmary here.)

Good grief, there's a 2006 recruiting class rated better than Ohio State's? Is this possible?

Wonk back!
Don't just mutter ineffectually; email me!

Efficient and prolific--that's the ticket!
Hey, Wonk,

I love all the stats you have been throwing at us early this season. The tempo-controlled and minutes-played (or per-possession) stats provide great insight into teams and players.

However, a thought that has been bothering me, particularly with the individual stats: Isn't a guy who can actually play 40 minutes a game better than someone who has identical averages per 40 minutes (or per possession) but only plays, say, 25 minutes? I think the answer is "yes."

That first guy is giving more to his team and doing something more difficult by playing 40 minutes per game, when there is probably some diminishing returns for additional minutes as a player gets tired. Your "controlled" stats don't take this into account.

Marcus S.

Excellent point, Marcus! That's why I've advocated reserving our heartiest applause for those few players who can look good in both tempo-free and traditional numbers. And, at the risk of giving a sneak preview of next week, let me leave you with a two-word thought in that vein:

Carl Landry.

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