StaTuesday: Pitino’s Gophers turnaround starts with defense

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino has turned his team's defense around.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

After a posting a 24-win season that exceeded all expectations, head coach Richard Pitino and his Minnesota Gophers earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament for their highest seeding since 1997 — the team’s incredible Final Four run that officially never happened.

Middle Tennessee State, the team that stunned second-seeded Michigan State in the first round last year, awaits Minnesota as a threatening No. 12 seed on Thursday evening.

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Minnesota was led by Nate Mason, Akeem Springs and Jordan Murphy on offense to average over seven more points per game during the regular season than the eight-win Gopher team in 2015-16.  But the biggest difference was Pitino’s transformed defense that featured the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Reggie Lynch.

The same team that gave up 74 points per game in 2015-16 became one of the best defenses in the nation.

Compared to last season, opponents shot six percent worse from the field and an astounding eight percent worse from the 3-point line against the Gophers. Minnesota’s defense ranked 14th in the nation in opponent field-goal percentage and 11th in the nation against the 3-pointer – one year after failing to crack the nation’s top-200 teams in any of those categories.

Opponents vs. Minnesota Gophers

Year FG% 3P% PPG
2016-17 0.398 (14) 0.305 (11) 69.1 (81)
2015-16 0.451 (251) 0.381 (329) 74 (216)

Those statistics rang impressive throughout the Big Ten. Minnesota led the conference in field-goal percentage defense, 3-point percentage defense and blocks per game – thanks in large part to Lynch’s 111 blocks, which rank second in the nation.

2016-17 Big Ten Defensive Leaders

Team FG% 3P% BS/G
Minnesota .398* .305* 6.8*
Northwestern 0.403 0.335 5.0
Michigan State 0.406 0.347 4.8
Wisconsin 0.410 0.377 3.6
Rutgers 0.413 0.327 4.6
Purdue 0.413 0.323 2.5
Maryland 0.413 0.336 4.7
Ohio State 0.416 0.356 3.8
Indiana 0.427 0.336 4.7
Penn State 0.430 0.363 5.5
Illinois 0.437 0.341 2.3
Iowa .443 0.355 3.8
Nebraska 0.447 0.399 3.7
Michigan .462 0.378 2.8

* Leads Big Ten

The offense was no slouch, either. Assists came by the dozen, and the Gophers saw a three-percent increase in both field-goal and 3-point percentage.

Minnesota Gophers Offense

Year Record FG% 3P% A PPG
2016-17 24-9 0.435 0.344 492 75.3
2015-16 8-23 0.405 0.310 379 68.0

Although Middle Tennessee State is being acknowledged as the early favorite to be this tournament’s Cinderella darling, the Blue Raiders will need to get past the Gophers and their improved defense in Milwaukee in hopes of a Sweet 16 run.