There were times last season when the Gophers flirted with being the Big Ten’s top defensive team.
They had the size and length on the perimeter to make it tough on opponents. They digested scouting reports and took away the best scoring options for other teams.
So why have they fallen off so far on the defensive end with their entire starting five back from last year’s NCAA tournament?
Just three games into the season, coach Richard Pitino already was warning his players that if they continued to play bad defense, they would get burned.
And they definitely have in three losses in the past four games, most disturbingly in Saturday’s 95-79 loss, when Arkansas shot 57 percent from the field in Fayetteville.
“I’m not lowering expectations, but we are a different team than last year,” said Pitino, whose team plays Drake at home Monday. “Our bench is totally different. My first two subs were either Dupree [McBrayer] or Akeem [Springs] or Eric Curry last year. We don’t have those.”
Gone are Springs (he was a senior) and Curry (injured), arguably the Gophers’ two best defenders last season. Springs was strong and tough at 6-4, 220 pounds. He could defend three positions and was the team’s best communicator. After he was sidelined by a torn Achilles’ injury in the Big Ten tournament, Minnesota lost to Michigan and then to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Not surprisingly, both of those opponents combined to shoot over 50 percent.
At 6-9, 235, Curry was Reggie Lynch’s backup at center and also could play power forward. He was a solid rebounding presence and probably the team’s best player at defending the pick-and-roll.
Without players to replace Springs and Curry, Minnesota has been exposed as a team that fails to communicate in half-court defense. That leads to being carved up on ball screens and closing out late on shooters.
The Gophers are also vulnerable when frontcourt starters Lynch and Jordan Murphy get into foul trouble, or when they’re worn out from having to play too many minutes.
“We’re not pressing the panic button right now,” McBrayer said. “But we’ve got to go back to being hungry on defense when nobody was talking about us. That’s what has got to be our identity.”
After Saturday’s loss, Pitino talked about Lynch’s early foul trouble contributing to the problems getting stops. Lynch played just four minutes in the first half. He came in averaging a national-best 4.5 blocks per game but had only one in 14 minutes.
And his top backup, Bakary Konate, didn’t make the trip because of a concussion. The Gophers hope to get Konate back Monday.
“You tell Reggie he can’t get into foul trouble,” Pitino said, “and he gets in foul trouble.”
Without rim protection, Minnesota allowed Arkansas to shoot 66.7 percent in the first half.
In the second half of losses to Miami, Nebraska and Arkansas and in the bizarre 5-on-3 game victory against Alabama, opponents shot a combined 53 percent.
It’s a disturbing trend that the Gophers might not be able to stop until they become more connected as a team defensively and figure out how to minimize their bench limitations.