Gophers coach Richard Pitino calls a play during the second half against South Dakota State.
Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport
MINNEAPOLIS — Advanced statistics and sabermetrics have worked their way into the game of baseball but remain relatively anonymous in other sports. Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino might be among the minority of coaches who uses those stats regularly.
One day before his team prepared to host Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Pitino cited the KenPom rankings in reference to his team’s performance. The advanced statistics were devised by Ken Pomeroy, who has a wide range of college basketball statistics at his website, kenpom.com.
The 31-year-old Pitino has been an ardent follower of Pomeroy’s work for quite some time.
"I think more than anything, it gives you another way to illustrate your point," Pitino said Friday. "We were a really good offensive efficient team, Minnesota was, last year, but defensively we weren’t great. It just shows we were a good team, we weren’t a great team. If you want to be a great team, you’ve got to get those numbers at a high ranking, so it’s a good illustration of that."
Pitino said his current Gophers team also ranks near the top of the Big Ten in offensive efficiency but falls toward the bottom in defensive efficiency, according to the KenPom rankings. With the Big Ten schedule set to begin shortly, he knows those numbers will have to improve.
"If we continue with those numbers, we’re going to be at the bottom of the Big Ten," Pitino said. "If we stay offensively at that number and we improve defensively on that number, we can make a run at it. We’ve got a long way to go, definitely, but the thing I love, these guys’ attitudes are great."
Minnesota’s players might not break down the numbers to the degree that Pomeroy or Pitino do, but even without advanced stats the Gophers know they need to get better defensively. Minnesota is allowing 66.8 points per game so far in nonconference play, which ranks 87th in the country. Compare that to the Gophers’ offensive output of 78.4 points — 63rd nationally — and there’s a discrepancy.
With just two games between Dec. 10 and Jan. 2, Pitino has had plenty of time to attempt to shore up his team’s defense before the Gophers open the Big Ten slate against Michigan on Jan. 2.
"We do a pretty poor job of guarding the dribble," said point guard DeAndre Mathieu. "Some games, guys will get a lot of blow-bys. Coach said he wants us to play better with our feet guarding the dribble more and just contest every shot and make it hard for other teams and impose our will on them."
Mathieu settling in with Gophers: When Mathieu joined Minnesota from Central Arizona College prior to this season, there were questions as to how he would handle life on the big stage of college basketball. Some wondered that not only because he was coming from a junior college, but because of his size.
Through nonconference play, the 5-foot-9 Mathieu has left little doubt that he can play at this level. He scored a season-high 27 points in the Gophers’ recent win against Nebraska-Omaha, showing that he’s not just a distributor.
"I think now that he had 27 points in his last game, teams are really going to game-plan against him," Pitino said. "I think with the new rules, it allows him to be able to attack as much as possible. I hopefully don’t anticipate that changing too much."
The rules Pitino referenced are the new hand checking rules, which some feel makes it harder for defenses to guard a player. Referees will call a foul if a player keeps a hand or forearm on an opponent or puts two hands on the ball handler. Because of Mathieu’s quickness, opposing teams have had a hard time slowing him down, which has allowed him to get to the basket with relative ease at times.
If any player on the Gophers is thriving under the new rules, it would be Mathieu.
"It kind of depends on the game and the ref. Some refs don’t call it as tough, and some refs do call touch fouls," he said. "On the offensive end, it’s pretty tough for guys to keep me in front without using their hands and having to slide their feet to keep up with my quickness. I kind of just use it to my advantage to get into the lane and get to the basket as much as possible."
Pitino welcomes lull in schedule: While Pitino’s players may be antsy to finally play another game after an eight-day layoff, this time of the year is something that coaches enjoy as it allows them to fine-tune things before conference play starts.
Earlier this month, Minnesota had a 10-day break without games before hosting Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 20. Now Saturday’s game against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi will end an eight-day drought.
"Once finals are over, that’s like a coach’s dream in the sense that there’s no hour limitation," Pitino said. "It’s all about basketball, which is great for us. We did individuals earlier today. We’ll practice this afternoon. There’s no restrictions, which is nice."
Still, the Gophers have grown sick of practicing against each other and can’t help but look ahead to a full slate of Big Ten games beginning next week.
"Games are so much more fun than practice, because practice you’re against your teammates all the time and beating up on each other in drills," Mathieu said. "It starts to get tiring just going for that long and playing against your teammates."