Although most fans were elated when former Minnesota Gopher and Lynx player Lindsay Whalen was announced as head coach of Minnesota, there were fans and pundits who questioned the move. Back in April when the hiring was announced, Whalen’s lack of coaching experience at any level was cited as a negative.
Fast-forward eight months, and we find the Golden Gophers off to an incredibly successful start that suggests the hiring decision was a shrewd one and #TheWinningWhay is working:
8–0 Record: Third-best start in program history. Oh, by the Whay, the two best starts (12–0 and 15–0) were during Whalen’s junior and senior seasons!
National Ranking: No. 14 in AP poll /No. 18 in Coaches Poll, their highest in each poll in over a decade.
Signature Win: 72–68 victory over then-No. 12 Syracuse on November 29th.
This success is largely due to improved defense and superior rebounding:
-Minnesota is giving up an average of less than 50 points per game and holding opponents to 33.8% field goal shooting.
-The Gophers have given up less than 10 points in 11 of the 32 quarters (34%) in the 8 games they have played so far.
Whalen noted after win number eight over Incarnate Word, “We focused a lot on defense” before the season started. Both Whalen and the players have consistently cited using defense to create offense.
Whalen has stated that attacking the boards can win games, especially when shots aren’t falling. The Gophers average an 8th best in the country 48 rebounds per game (15 more than their opposition), which limits second chances for teams to score and can turn into fast-break points. The Gophers have shot less than 40% in half of their games so far and have made only 27% of their three-pointers.
Rebounder extraordinaire forward Taiye Bello is third nationally in total rebounds (113) and first in offensive rebounds (50). She has reached double figures in rebounding in six of the eight wins. In that span, Bello had three games with 18 rebounds and one with 19. She averages a double-double, contributing nearly 11 points and 15 rebounds per game.
It’s a team effort
While Bello leads the team in rebounding and guard Kenisha Bell leads the team in scoring averaging nearly 20 points per game, any of the other starters are capable of providing a spark.
Center Annalese Lamke is making the most of her increased playing time. She now starts and averages 22 minutes per game, up significantly from her 3.5 minutes per game last season. Lamke averages 9 points and 7 rebounds per game while shooting almost 64% from the field.
2018 Big Ten Freshman of the Year guard/forward Destiny Pitts averages 10 points per game and is the team’s best 3-point threat, shooting over 37% from that range last season. Pitts had a breakout game against Incarnate Word last week, going 5 for 5 from 3 point range putting her at 32% so far this season.
Also waiting in the wings is guard Gadiva Hubbard who has not yet played due to a foot injury. She is listed as out indefinitely after surgery on October 19th. She started every game last season, averaged 36 minutes and 13.6 points per game while shooting almost 35% from 3 point range. Whenever she returns, it will be a big boost for the Gophers in both depth and outside shooting.
Minnesota has three non-conference games left (8–1 Boston College is next) before starting Big 10 games against Wisconsin. Many of the Big 10 games will undoubtedly be tough, but Whalen stated after the win against Incarnate Word that she was “pleased by how the team follows the game plan” each time out and shows game-to-game improvement. She cited assists and free throws as areas the team worked on after the team’s 7th win over Air Force on December 2nd. Assists improved from 8 to 22 and free throws improved from 20–39 (51.3%) to 9–9 (100%).
Minnesota may need to make more in-game adjustments rather than game-to-game as the season progresses to compete at at high level, but the potential is there for some exciting basketball ahead.