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Minnesota’s big challenge is in front of them

November 28, 2014 Columns No Comments

NEW YORK – Minnesota made it through one challenge in their schedule, leaving Madison Square Garden with a win in two tries. At this point, though, the challenge is just beginning for them, with the hope that their 66-62 win over Georgia gives them just the boost they need to start.

Just before Wednesday’s semifinal loss to St. John’s, the school announced that guard Daquein McNeil was suspended indefinitely following a recent arrest. The sophomore was charged with two counts of assault after allegedly choking his girlfriend and whipping her with a belt. He will remain suspended until the legal process plays out, and that can take any amount of time.

With McNeil out for an undetermined amount of time, the active guards are pressed into more duty. He’s not their best player, but for the way this team plays, McNeil’s loss is in the overall numbers as it takes one more guard out of the lineup. It doesn’t mean much more production is needed since he isn’t a big offensive player. Rather, it means more minutes, primarily, for everyone else. It means staying out of foul trouble given a lack of depth. It might also mean going with more of a traditional lineup more often, using three forwards instead of three guards. It might mean that Kendal Shell, who played a grand total of 40 minutes in his first three seasons, now has to play appreciable minutes.

It’s also a challenge for the coaching staff in managing lineups, and head coach Richard Pitino admitted that much.

“It’s difficult right now, coaching-wise, figuring some things out,” said Pitino. “We just need practice, and the biggest thing we said is don’t get in foul trouble.”

The challenge becomes more pronounced given the way the Golden Gophers want to play. They forced 18 Georgia turnovers on Friday, including 15 in the first half. They turned those turnovers into 23 points, all in the first half, and that combined with a 7-12 mark from long range put them up at the break.

Success with the press should help with offensive challenges, though the Golden Gophers don’t seem to be lacking scorers. But doing it also usually requires depth, and that’s a challenge with McNeil’s absence as well as Andre Hollins having been bothered by an ankle issue earlier, though Pitino said he thinks Hollins is healthy now. It’s also what this team wants to do and won’t shy away from.

“We want a high number of steals and we want to turn teams over,” said Pitino. “That’s got to be our identity.”

Pitino added that the personnel challenge also means some changes in defensive strategy in the halfcourt. They used a matchup zone on Friday that they only recently added in. Georgia shot 62.5 percent in the first half, but turned the ball over 15 times, so there was a small sample. However, the Bulldogs were just 1-7 from long range. For the game they ended up below 46 percent, including 3-14 from long range.

While the Bulldogs made it a ballgame late, getting within a possession in the final minute, the Golden Gophers had enough of a response to seal it. Nearly losing a 16-point lead is concerning, as is going 12-23 at the line, but they did enough to pull this out.

Minnesota’s best chances for a shelf life win in non-conference play have come and gone. They lost to Louisville and St. John’s before beating a Georgia team that is good enough to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid. This win might have some shelf life later in the year. Among remaining non-conference opponents, they are at Wake Forest next week in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and a win there probably won’t have shelf life, especially after the Demon Deacons lost to Delaware State later on Friday. The last six non-conference games after that are all at home and none are against teams likely to be in position for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Wins will help them build confidence for Big Ten play, and it’s in the Big Ten where the big wins will be needed to get into the NCAA Tournament.

The Golden Gophers hope much of Friday’s win is a blueprint for success. They’re down in numbers, which hurts for how they want to play, but they have no choice but to adjust. They sped Georgia up, and they continue to turn teams over as they are forcing over 20 turnovers per game thus far. If they keep that up, they may be able to overcome getting out-rebounded. One challenge is in the books, but a bigger one is just beginning.

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