Carlos Morris looked like an octopus playing Wake Forest on Tuesday night, stretching his long arms to pick off passes left and right as the Gophers won 84-69.
When the junior college transfer’s 31 minutes on the court were up, he had collected eight steals — just one shy of the program’s single-game record.
Head coach Richard Pitino’s team is far from a finished product and has struggled against good competition this year, like Louisville and St. John’s.
But seven games into Pitino’s second season at Minnesota, his players have shown a capacity to do one thing at a high level: play pressure defense.
“Defense wins games, and that’s what [Pitino] preaches every practice,” Morris said. “Just rotate, be together as a defense.”
The defensive intensity hasn’t just come from Morris. It’s been the hallmark of Minnesota’s perimeter players.
After their season-opening loss to Louisville in Puerto Rico, the Gophers sat down and pored over game film. The biggest takeaway: The Cardinals, coached by Pitino’s father, Rick, were playing with the defensive intensity Minnesota wanted.
“I think it was a revelation kind of when we played Louisville, and we broke down the film and we kind of saw how they were guarding things,” senior guard Andre Hollins said. “Then we looked at us to see if we were really pressuring the ball like we thought we were.”
Minnesota recorded a season-low six steals against Louisville, with senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu flummoxed by foul trouble.
The Gophers’ coaching staff talked to Mathieu after the game and told him he needs to be like a “gnat” if he wants to play professionally. Since then, he’s been a pest on the defensive end, often picking up opposing guards full court and making simple tasks like bringing the ball up the floor a chore.
“If you can pick up a guy 74 feet, they’ll give you a contract somewhere,” Mathieu said after recording five steals in a win against Western Kentucky last month. “I kind of took that in my mind and tried to make my defense better.”
With both Hollins and Mathieu locked in defensively, Minnesota’s defense as a whole has started to follow suit, with big men like Joey King and Mo Walker playing more passing lanes.
“When we bring it, it’s pretty difficult for other teams to get their offense going,” King said.
Mathieu and Hollins are responsible for setting the tone.
“Everybody’s watching [those] two guys to see if they’re going to speed up the ball, if they’re going to get deflections,” Pitino said. “Those two guys are crucial defensively starting all that stuff.”
While the Gophers have struggled to find depth at small forward this season, there’s no shortage of ball-hawking guards. Even when Mathieu or Hollins head to the bench, there’s not a decrease in defensive pressure.
In fact, there might be an increase. Nate Mason is already adept at taking opposing guards out of their comfort zones with full-court pressure.
“When we press, we want to speed up the ball. You’ve got to have a great defender speeding up the ball, and Nate is that,” Pitino said.
Though Minnesota’s improved defensive pressure up top is obvious to the naked eye, it’s also shown on the team’s stat sheet. After Tuesday’s game, the Gophers ranked fourth in the country with more than 11 steals per game.
Last season, Minnesota finished 45th nationally at 7.42 thefts per contest.
Regardless of the small sample size, it’s clear that Minnesota is a handful for opposing offenses to face. Ball pressure has become the Gophers’ calling card and, even though they’re far from perfect, that’s enough to make them a tough out against just about anybody.
“We’re not afraid to pressure the ball,” Hollins said. “That’s just what we do, and I think we’re getting more comfortable doing it.”