Three months ago, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino sat in front of the media and uttered the word “youth” numerous times.
He also beamed when talking about his corps of freshmen and sophomores and the Gophers team he would unveil a few weeks later, at the season’s start.
“We have a lot of pieces in play,” he said. “I think we’ve got a chance to be a very good team.”
Flash forward to Wednesday, when the coach was grappling with explaining Minnesota’s 10th consecutive loss, a 68-64-near-miss against No. 21 Purdue at home. A season of expected ups and downs has taken a nose dive as the Gophers (6-15, 0-9) sit at the halfway point of Big Ten play entering Saturday’s game at No. 19 Indiana. Those who have tuned in closely might feel like it has been a longer season already, as the team rides out its longest skid in nearly four decades.
With nine games still on the docket, there’s not enough time to turn things around in a way that is at all meaningful for this year’s postseason. But a finish that includes some positives and perceived growth — and yes, a few wins — would go a long way in boosting team morale, restoring confidence in Pitino and providing excitement for next season.
Ten ailments have prevented that kind of optimism so far this winter:
The Gophers have shot below 53 percent in each of their past two games, and just 42.9 in the last 10 minutes of those games. For the season, they are shooting 70.2 percent.
Whatever can be called a foul will be called a foul on freshman Jordan Murphy — particularly in the first half, when the forward has picked up two before the 14th-minute mark 78 percent of the time.
Whether it’s man-to-man or zone, the Gophers have proved extremely porous, allowing 73.9 points a game, third worst in the conference.
An overmatched frontcourt
Centers Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou were forced into roles they weren’t ready for, and as a result, Minnesota is ranked 12th in making two-point shots, defending two-point shots and blocks.
The Gophers’ 31 percent execution from beyond the arc ranks 11th in the league. Take away senior Joey King’s 19-for-43 performance in league play, and Minnesota has made just 26.5 percent.
Since the start of the season, the Gophers have shown a lack of intensity on the boards even against smaller teams, getting outrebounded 16 times.
A sharing problem
Overall, 54.6 percent of Minnesota’s field goals are assisted — not a strong number — but the Gophers have had three games since the start of conference play in which they’ve recorded assists on 40 percent or less of their baskets.
The Gophers are in the national top 40 of analyst Ken Pomeroy’s effective height rankings, but the team’s two tallest players — Konate and Diedhiou — are also still adapting to the American game and have been wholly inefficient. Otherwise, the Gophers have just two players taller than 6-6, and two guards 6-2 or shorter.
Pitino has repeatedly talked about upperclassmen King, Carlos Morris and Charles Buggs lacking “vocal” personalities, and although sophomore Nate Mason is emerging in that role, the on-court leader at the end of games hasn’t always been clear.
Freshmen and sophomores will make youthful mistakes. Unfortunately, those underclassmen make up 70 percent of the active scholarships. The youngsters have talked about being nervous during big moments — a reality the team hopes to grow out of in time.