January 15, 2009

Behind enemy lines: Minnesota

MADISON, Wis. - In its second year under head coach Tubby Smith, the Minnesota men's basketball team has made giant strides. So much so, that when it graces the Kohl Center court later tonight, it will be ranked higher than the home team.

Before tip-off, BadgerBlitz.com welcomes in GopherIllustrated.com basketball beat writer Ryan James to discuss the match-up.

The following questions were compiled by BadgerBlitz.com and answered by James:

1.) Defensively there is no doubt the Gophers like to pressure the ball. How much does coach Tubby Smith's rotation of 11 or 12 guys help Minnesota maintain that level of defensive intensity and is there any sort of offensive drop off involved with it?

James:The Gophers are able to maintain a high level of defensive intensity with all 11 or 12 guys because overall it's a good mix of talent. They have several players who are laterally quick, strong with long arms and active. They also have guys like Blake Hoffarber and Jamal Abu-Shamala who may not have the quickest feet in the Big Ten but they are intelligent defenders who know positioning which allows them to defend the slower of the opposing wings on the floor.

Minnesota's straight man-to-man defense has been inconsistent in results recently due to problems on the backside of the defense and due to problems with defending ball screens. But coach Smith has mixed in some man defenses with a few different principles, he's worked successfully with a few zones, and they've been quite successful with their half court zone defense because the guys have been very active playing it.

Offensively there has not been a drop off because so many guys play a good amount of minutes that this team doesn't get tired. Tubby subs in masses and does it regularly for about the first 30 minutes so his players are very fresh and very confident in one another. And the second group is equally as capable of scoring as the first five guys on the floor.

2.) Guard Al Nolen leads the Gophers in minutes played, yet he only averages eight points per game. Is that because he doesn't look to score and just focuses on distributing the ball, or is he just taking the game as it comes to him and utilize the opportunities he gets?

James: Al will look to score with a long jumper a couple times a game, he will attack the rim in transition, and in the half court set if there is a defensive mix-up leaving an opening Nolen will jet into it and score at the rim. Al takes advantage of his opportunities when they are there and rarely will he force his offense. 

His main role on this team is to orchestrate, create, and distribute. Guys love to run the floor with Al and he does a fantastic job of drawing in defenders to create for others.

In the half court set he can get to the paint sucking down two or three help defenders and, depending on the angles, he kicks to open wings or hits slashing teammates with crisp passes. His speed off the dribble commands so much attention that the help almost overplays Nolen at times leaving open teammates for good shots.

3.) Last season, Damian Johnson did it all for Minnesota as he filled up the stat sheet. This season, I understand he suffered an early hand injury. Has that affected him as the season has progressed and is he back at 100 percent as we speak?

Damian did have a hand injury but he's 100 percent now and I don't believe it affected his shot that much. Johnson is improved as a shooter and he has been very consistent making short jumpers around the lane using his length to get shots over bigs and has touch to sink them.

Johnson had shown signs of a better long range jumper but he doesn't get the reps outside as often because he has teammates like Abu-Shamala, Blake Hoffarber, Lawrence Westbrook, Devron Bostick, Devoe Joseph, and Travis Busch who can all sink the deep ball with decent consistency.

4.) UW junior Trevon Hughes has had some pretty good games against the Gophers in the past and I believe he averages 15.5 points per game when the two teams match up. So far this season, outside of the Purdue game, he has been doing very well with not turning the ball over and still chipping in some points. Knowing that, which Badger player is Minnesota most concerned with?

James: The Gophers are definitely game planning for Hughes because he can do so many things with his ability. Trevon can hit from beyond the arc but he's also steady in his attack. But I would say that Minnesota has put just as much emphasis on guys like Joe Krabbenhoft and Marcus Landry because the Gophers have had problems with active and strong wings in past games.

Minnesota has given up several put-back buckets throughout the season as active forwards have found holes in the defense to create scoring opportunities. Both Landry and Krabbenhoft are good on the offensive glass and they are hard cutters who cannot be lost on the backside. Minnesota has given up buckets because of their backside defense and backside rebounding and players like Krabbenhoft and Landry do this type of thing extremely well.

And there have been a few teams that will have taken advantage of Ralph Sampson playing power forward with some small isolations through ball reversals. Plus Jon Leuer could give Minnesota problems because of his length and shooting touch. The Gophers have also had problems over helping to the lane and lanky shooters like Leuer have hurt Minnesota because they are so hard to recover to. Leuer will also get on the offensive glass a little bit.

5.) It's been fairly obvious that since coach Smith took over up there in Minneapolis, the Gophers have become a different team. It's not too often, especially in recent years, that Minnesota comes down to Madison as the only ranked team in the match up. With the success the Gophers are having this season, do you feel this rivalry is becoming more intense?

James: I feel the rivalry is becoming more intense and if it hasn't I'm sure it will. Wisconsin basketball hit such high levels at about the same time Gopher basketball was starting to tank. Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan took the program to new heights when the Clem Haskins era ended and Dan Monson took over. Coach Monson had some good moments in his eight-year tenure but for the most part his Gopher teams were either NIT bound as underachievers or they were struggling towards the bottom of the league.

The Gopher program lost a lot of mystique over the last 10 years but Tubby is starting to bring it back. 

And with that mystique I would venture to guess that the match-ups with Wisconsin will not be as one-sided as it had become and the rivalry will have a renewed energy.

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