After starting the season 5-0, the Golden Gophers will head halfway across the Pacific Ocean to partake in the 2014 Maui Invitational. With the likes of Syracuse, Gonzaga, Baylor, and California invading the big island during Thanksgiving week, the Maui once again looks to uphold its reputation as a premier early season tournament and provide a deep field containing several teams with NCAA Tournament hopes. There's only one statistic that needs to be used to describe the talent and depth of Maui's field this year: NO TEAM IN THE FIELD HAS RECORDED A SINGLE LOSS YET THIS SEASON (no, this is not a typo). The eight teams are a combined 30-0 so far this season.
This collection of teams will provide young Richard Pitino with a good measuring stick for his squad that has, at least thus far, dealt with the system overhaul at Minnesota with relative aplomb. Through their first five games, the Gophers rank 12th in the nation in 3-point field goal attempts and 20th in steals. These stats are good indicators of the change in overall scheme including an up-tempo offense and pressure defense that has been Pitino's preference in his limited time as a head coach.
In lieu of this success, the scheduling powers did Pitino's squad no favors by matching the Gophers up in the first round with living legend Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange (9th in AP, 7th in coaches). Just to have a reference for the age difference between the two coaches, Boeheim began coaching at Syracuse SIX YEARS BEFORE (!!!) Pitino was even born. So there's just a slight discrepancy in head coaching experience. And that's just the first round matchup. Let's examine some of the things that need to happen for the Gophers to make a successful run while visiting the Aloha State.
Solve The Syracuse Zone
First off, Minnesota will need to attack the 2-3 zone which Syracuse has become synonymous with during Boeheim's tenure. This will require smart cuts, crisp passing, and an intelligent, yet not hesitant, shot selection. While Pitino emphasizes shooting a lot of threes, it would behoove the Gophers to avoid reverting to chucking early in this game. They need to pass quickly, find gaps, utilize the athleticism of Austin Hollins in the middle of the zone, and work inside-out with shooters like Andre Hollins and Oto Osenieks (I never thought I'd say "Osenieks" and "shooter" in the same sentence). Andre Hollins (18.8 ppg) will need to pick his spots to launch from behind the arc, but if he catches fire it's possible he puts up big numbers as he did against Memphis in the Bahamas last November.
Dictate The Tempo
Thus far this season, when the Gophers have been able to dictate the tempo of the game on defense, it has allowed their offense to move more fluidly. When the game has slowed down, the offense has become stagnant, with little direction and low shooting percentages from three-point land. In order to avoid this quagmire, Minnesota will need to continue to pressure their opponents into uncomfortable spots on the floor on defense and cause turnovers that lead to easy buckets. This team, albeit in a small sample size, has shown to be more adept to scoring when they are able to speed the game up and work together in transition.
All Hands On Deck Rebounding
After being out rebounded in an exhibition game by a Division II opponent, the Golden Gophers have been able to out rebound their opponents with contributions from a variety of sources. Leading the way has been starting center Eliott Eliason, averaging 11.2 rpg. After EE, the team has been determined to crash the boards together with the Hollins' and Osenieks combining for 16.6 rpg. They will need to continue to utilize this "all hands on deck" approach and keep the rebound margin near 0 or positive to have a chance against the better teams in the Maui Invitational.
Find A Third Scorer
While the law firm of Hollins and Hollins are always good for a combined 30 points, another scoring contributor (or two) needs to be found for the Gophers to have sustained success at the Lahaina Civic Center. After a big first game where he dropped 20 points against Lehigh, Joey King has gone a bit cold from the field and he might not even play in Maui due to a broken jaw suffered against Coastal Carolina this past Tuesday. Deandre Mathieu is more of a distributor than a scorer and Eliason hardly looks the part for a threat in the post, though last night against Wofford he did post possibly his best career stat line with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 blocks. The answer might be in the form of Oto Osenieks to continue his resurrection from the metaphorical dead. Oto has a respectable shooting percentage both from the field (47.4%) and the 3-point line (37.5%). If one of the other starters, or perhaps Malik Smith off the bench, can find their scoring touch, Minnesota might be able to challenge Syracuse and beyond.
It's really unfortunate that the Gophers got matched up with arguably the field's most talented team in the first round of the tournament. They will have no time to get their feet wet with say Chaminade or Dayton or Arkansas like some of the other teams in the first round. Tossed right into the fire from the get go, it's hard for me to pick the Gophers to win their first game. However, after the terrible showing Syracuse put up against St. Francis (NY) at the Carrier Dome a few nights ago, a Minnesota win looks a lot less improbable than it did at the beginning of the season. I foresee the Gophers going 2-1 in the tournament on the back of Andre Hollins. My bold prediction is guaranteeing a win in the second game over the Arkansas/California winner/loser. I think the Gophers can handle either of those teams and an interesting story line to track will be to see if Justin Cobbs, former Gopher, will square off against his old team in the second round.
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