It’s only natural that Minnesota Coach Richard Pitino’s Gophers use a match-up press defense. After all, Pitino grew up with it.
The son of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, the younger Pitino has spent his first two seasons in Minnesota implementing a variation of his father’s defense. He’ll bring it with him to Assembly Hall Sunday night when the Golden Gophers (16-9, 5-7) and Hoosiers (17-8, 7-5) meet at 7:30 p.m.
On any given set, the Gophers can press or fall back into the half-court. They can play off the ball just as easily as they play on it. They’ll start man-to-man but fall back into a zone without warning.
Pitino’s goal is to confuse. Any hesitation is a chance for Minnesota to pounce and take advantage. He wants to speed up opposing guards and make them feel uncomfortable.
Most of all, he wants to force turnovers.
“The key is recognition,” IU Coach Tom Crean said about combating the press. “Make them play defense. Make them move around and get everybody involved defensively. It’s just a matter of playing. It’s not a secret science out there. It just comes down to really good recognition.”
The effectiveness of a matchup zone usually correlates to how well an offense adjusts. The more Minnesota recognizes patterns, the easier it is for them to attack on defense which is why opposing offenses like to attack match-up zones with free-flowing offensive sets.
That coincidentally plays into IU’s hand. The same characteristics that teams typically use to beat match-up zones are the very same Crean already uses.
The Hoosiers space the floor. They’ll reverse the ball, spread the defense out and make the extra pass to an open shooter whenever possible.
So really, not much changes for IU mechanically. The Hoosiers know the press is coming. It’s just a matter of handling it.
“We have to come in ready to be able to combat their pressure,” sophomore forward Collin Harmtan said. “We need to be able to play within our game and just take care of the ball.”
But taking care of the ball against Minnesota may be easier said than done.
The Gophers sport a 26 percent turnover percentage, good enough to rank No. 4 in the country according to kenpom.com.
The defense has been especially good as of late. In its current 3-game winning streak, Minnesota has forced 59 turnovers off 36 steals against Purdue, Nebraska and Iowa.
The 17 steals Minnesota had against Purdue was the most a Big Ten school has had in five seasons.
Players admitted after beating Purdue that its been a team goal to break the program’s record 298 steals set in 2007-08. This year’s team has 269.
“They’re just very, very active with their hands,” Hartman said. “People drive, they come for it.”
Crean was quick to downplay whether IU’s previous matchup against Louisville would help prepare for Minnesota.
In that loss, the Hoosiers turned the ball over 19 times. It was a bit of an outlier for an IU offense ranking No. 42 in the country in turnover percentage.
Pitino still hasn’t had quite the time to recruit the proper players for the press. Minnesota has made up for a lack of speed with size where 5-foot-9 DeAndrew Mathieu, 6-foot-2 Andre Hollins and 6-foot-1 Nate Mason roam.
Regardless, they’ve found a way to make it work. The test for IU is working around it.
“Their press does a lot for them,” Hartman said. “We have to meet the ball and take care of the ball and just be smart.”