Minnesota successfully represented the conference in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Clemson, defeating the Tigers 89-83 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In doing so, the Gophers also extended their non-conference home winning streak to 47, which is second in the country (Duke has the longest streak).
More importantly, Minnesota overcame adversity in the game and used the home crowd to fuel a big second half comeback. Watching it, a few major themes jumped out.
The Gophers won, but I'll start negative anyway. Minnesota didn't play sustained, good defense. They struggled, specifically, to guard the three point line. Most of it, from my view, stemmed from poor defensive rotations. Either two guys closed on one, leaving someone open, or the rotations were simply late. Part of it's just having a young team, learning to communicate; part of it is effort and part of it seeing ball-and-man. When the Gophers were motivated and active defensively, they forced turnovers and contest shots against Clemson.
Minnesota gave up 83 points to Clemson, with the Tigers shooting 53 percent overall and 50 percent from three. That's an issue going forward, especially when Minnesota plays a great defensive team that could suffocate the offense.
This is really Pitino's best lineup if you ask me: Nate Mason, Carlos Morris/Kevin Dorsey, Charles Buggs, Jordan Murphy and Joey King. Of course, the match up has to be right and everybody has to be clicking.
The above lineup closed the game against Clemson and didn't get killed on the glass. They were extremely active and actually caused problems for Clemson. They attacked the offensive/defensive boards and battled for loose balls. It's one game, but the small lineup is extremely promising if it can defend and rebound.
Everybody in the lineup above can stretch the floor credibly. All five can put the ball on the floor too and attack the basket. This lineup has such good spacing that it makes it easier for them to share the ball (18 assists versus 6 turnovers). The key is King and Buggs playing a bit bigger, and getting after defensive rebounds. Jordan Murphy is the other key to the lineup, but we'll talk about him in a bit. Also, the small lineup was effective against Clemson because the Tigers lacked a dominating post presence, with the mismatch working in Minnesota's favor because Murphy could blow by bigger, slower defenders. I'd love to see this lineup when they get into Big Ten play, just to see if they can sustain and thrive against better competition.
Jordan Murphy, Budding Superstar
Murphy was exceptional against Clemson (24 points, 10 rebounds). He played with energy on the boards and attacked the basket. He even showed some range and hit a three in the first half. Mostly, though, he exploited his mismatch when on offense. Murphy blew by his defender and showed great athleticism all night and was key to sparking the Minnesota victory.
Just a freshman, he's an exciting prospect and with some high-level incoming prospects, Pitino is getting a look at the future of Minnesota basketball. In the present though, Murphy can help when he's engaged. He got lost a couple of times on defense and didn't close quickly enough on three point shooters, but his athleticism will cover up some defensive assignment mistakes.
Minnesota isn't going to be a defensive juggernaut this season in all likelihood. Pitino can tighten the rotations and preach playing with effort, but I wonder if his best course is playing small and living with the defensive limitations. The last two games Minnesota has scored 93 and 89 points, which means they could just rely on offense to carry them.
What I don't want to gloss over are the contributions from Charles Buggs, who was aggressive and shot the ball well, and Nate Mason, who provided a very steady hand running the offense. Even freshmen Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer played important minutes.
Clemson's not a top-10 team, but it's still a good win for a young Minnesota team looking for its identity and growing its confidence. Monday night was a positive step for the Golden Gophers.