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Minnesota Golden Gophers Struggling to Keep Up With Pre-Season Expectations

Minnesota has not performed to their expectations so far, but have the talent in place to change their fortunes.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Last year's NIT Champions, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, have struggled in Big Ten play this season. Coming into the season, Minnesota was expected to improve on last season's NIT championship by returning to the NCAA Tournament, which they accomplished only two seasons ago. After last night's close loss in Nebraska, Minnesota has fallen to 1-6 in conference play. At the moment, Minnesota is far from being a tournament caliber team.

However, despite their 1-6 record, there is hope for the Golden Gophers, although they will have to make significant strides to make up ground to secure a tournament selection. Three of their next four games are at home, which gives Minnesota opportunity to improve their conference record. Additionally, their next four opponents are weaker teams in the Big Ten.  Take a look at their schedule below.

Minnesota's Next Four Games

  • Illinois
  • at Penn State
  • Purdue
  • Nebraska

The Big Ten conference has been weaker than expected overall this season, but every win still provides a boost to Minnesota's potential NCAA tournament resume. Plus, these are all winnable games for the Gophers.  In fact, KenPom has Minnesota favored in all four games. These next four games are critical for Minnesota to have any chance to make the tournament. Winning at least three of the next four games could turn Minnesota's season around.

While it is nice for Minnesota to have a few easier opponents to boost their confidence, they need to raise their level of performance to have a chance. Minnesota has the talent on the court to change their fortunes. Minnesota's critical flaw in their two years under head coach Richard Pitino (Rick Pitino's son) has been their performance in closely contested games. In fact, five of their six losses in the Big Ten have been by five points or less.  Just take a look at their Big Ten performance so far.

Minnesota's 2014-2015 Big Ten Record:

  • Loss: Purdue on the road by 4
  • Loss: Maryland on the road by 12
  • Loss: Ohio State at home by 2 (OT)
  • Loss: Michigan on the road by 5
  • Loss: Iowa at home by 2
  • Win: Rutgers at home by 9
  • Loss: Nebraska on the road by 3

Advanced statistical models, which emphasize a team's offensive and defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, suggest that Minnesota's bad record will regress to the mean. In less technical terms, the models suggest that when games are very close (within five points or less), there is roughly a 50-50 chance that either team will win.

Using this logic would suggest that Minnesota will be more successful in close games in the future. However, we need to examine why Minnesota is performing poorly in their close games this season. Against Nebraska, a game where both teams struggled to make shots, Minnesota made only 9 of 19 shots from the free throw line, including a 5 for 9 performance from Andre Hollins, who made 84 percent of his free throws last season and 76 percent this season. In order to win close games, Minnesota has to improve the smaller parts of the game such as free throw shooting. Against Michigan, Minnesota made 11 of their 20 free throws, which played a key role in their 62-57 loss.

Minnesota is doing well in the most important aspects of the game. They are defending well and have a very good inside-outside game. They are making 81.7 percent of their shots at the rim, according to Hoop Math. However, they are only attempting 27.1 percent of their shots at the rim. If Minnesota dedicates more of their offense to attacking the rim and less to inefficient mid-range two pointers (making 32 percent of their shots and using 40 percent of their shot attempts), their offensive efficiency will vastly improve. With increased activity near the rim, Minnesota will generate more space for their shooters to knock down three pointers. In fact, Minnesota is shooting better from the three point line (32.9 percent) than from mid range (32 percent).

Minnesota has the talent to make a push in the Big Ten standings. They have the talent to make an NCAA tournament appearance. Games like against Iowa, where they lost in the final seconds, are okay in the long run, but poor free throw shooting and poor shot selection, like in the Nebraska and Michigan games, will make Minnesota's 2014-2015 season an afterthought.