This is Amelia Rayno's third season on the Gophers men's basketball beat. She learned college basketball in North Carolina (Go Tar Heels!), where fanhood is not an option. In 2010, she joined the Star Tribune after graduating from Boston's Emerson College, which sadly had no exciting D-I college hoops to latch onto. Amelia has also worked on the sports desk at the Boston Globe and interned at the Detroit News.Follow Rayno on Twitter @AmeliaRayno
In the final stretch of the season, it’s a new struggle that is cropping up.
Early in the season, we thought ball handling might be an issue. Minnesota averaged 14.4 turnovers in its first seven games, and totaled 20 in two contests in that span. But that worry dwindled as the year went on, and as of late, the Gophers turnover margin has been stellar, with Minnesota forcing 8.6 more turnovers than it makes per game in the last five.
Through a greater stretch, free-throw shooting was the great drama. Through the first 20 games, Minnesota shot just 63.9 from the charity stripe, second-worst in the league only because Michigan State has managed somehow to be even more atrocious at the line. But in the last seven games, that’s abated too. The Gophers still rank second to last in the Big Ten but are shooting 73 percent in that span, almost ten percentage points better.
In some ways, these fading trends could be taken as a sign that Minnesota has done a good job of making adjustment to its weaknesses, but I’m not sure that’s exactly the case. We’ve seen other things simply decline (the Gophers’ passing ability) or remain a problem no matter what (defensive rebounding). Ball handling troubles cropped up again at the start of the league schedule before this current stretch.
Instead, it seems the Gophers are prone to mental ruts. A small problem becomes a big problem when the team focuses too much negative energy on it. This latest issue has the potential to be another such case.
In the last two games, Minnesota has allowed its most three-pointers and its second most three-pointers in team history. That’s 33 long balls in all in games that – other than the defensive rebounding effort – the Gophers played fairly well overall.
Following the Indiana game, it was easy to think that a hot night for the conference’s best three-point shooting team simply got the best of Minnesota. An anomaly.
After watching the film, coach Richard Pitino told the media he thought 12 of the 18 connections were properly contested. Fine. Fair enough.
But when Northwestern came out flinging, the story changed. Minnesota switched its defense, going from most zone to man-to-man, but it still couldn’t stop the flurry. Suddenly, the Gophers were guarding the perimeter with fear. In the second half, perhaps a little too wary of the arc, the Wildcats --who hit 15 threes overall -- were able to be a little more versatile and get the ball inside more.
So if it’s not the zone, necessarily, and it’s not the main, why is this suddenly happening?
Well first off, Minnesota has faced two of the top-five shooting teams in the last two games. But Northwestern doesn’t really reel off 15 threes on the regular.
Freshman guard Nate Mason said the team’s communication on defense has been off lately.
“I would think we would learn, but we came out and did the same things,” he said. “We’re just not communicating on defense. We worked on it in practice – talking – and we got out here and we lost it.”
Senior guard DeAndre Mathieu said he thought the team was a bit lazy early, but was all over shooters in the second half.
“And they were still making shots,” he said. “So then it starts to sink in – like maybe it wasn’t just Indiana making shots. Maybe it’s something wrong with our defense.”
Pitino said that going in, he played to mix up both his man and zone defenses, but when Northwestern starting sinking shots, the coach stayed with man and just focused on getting his defenders to run shooters off the line.
When his players stopped executing, he wondered if it had gotten to them also.
“You give up 18 and then you come right back and they’re hitting crazy shots … it has to get in their minds,” he said. “It is deflating, but you have to get mentally tougher and that’s the reality of it.”
Mathieu said afterwards an upset Pitino wondered aloud where the team’s “heart” was.
All season, the Gophers have found new ways to lose close games – to get close enough and fall short enough. Wednesday was their seventh loss by one or two possessions in conference play. Now, they’ve got another reason to point to.
This time, it probably slammed the door shut on any barely lingering NCAA tournament aspirations and felt similar, in Minnesota minds, to losses vs. Illinois and Northwestern at home last year. The Gophers ultimately fell off the bubble then too, entering the NIT as a 1-seed.
“We needed this –a lot like last year, Northwestern, last year, Illinois,” Mathieu said. “We needed this and we came out and laid an egg. You would think having four seniors, five seniors, that we would learn from that and we didn’t. So he was really upset as he should be, as we all should be. We let one get away at home.”
**Andre Hollins scored 12 points and added six assists on Wednesday, but shot just 36.4 percent from the field overall and effectively ended a tear that had him averaging 21.3 points per game in the last eight. The senior guard went scoreless in the first half. “He didn’t have that kind of pop offensively where he was going by guys, attacking,” Pitino said. “Maybe their zone screwed him up, I’m not sure. But he’s been much more aggressive offensively in the past couple of games than he was tonight.”
**Mason got killed on a screen late in the second half and hit his head pretty hard on the floor. He looked a bit woozy when he got up, but stayed in the game, and drove to the basket afterward. He’ll be tested for any concussion symptoms today as a precaution. “I was a little bit dizzy and had a headache throughout the end of the game but I think I’ll be fine,” he said.
Read my full game story on Minnesota’s 77-66 loss vs. Northwestern here.
Three quick observations after the Gophers suffered their second straight home loss to the Wildcats.
That three-ball thing is a thing. The Gophers have now allowed 33 three-pointers in the last two games en route to a two-game losing streak. Put another way, Minnesota (16-11; 5-9 in the Big Ten) has allowed its most three balls and its second-most three balls in history in consecutive games. Sunday it was mostly the zone to blame. Tonight, the Gophers were in man-to-man for almost all of it, but it didn’t matter a bit. This problem isn’t going away either, with Wisconsin (twice) and Michigan State coming up in the next two weeks.
Unfortunate time for an Andre off-night. So, he finished with 12 points and six assists and on the face of it, that doesn’t look half bad. But most of his points came after the Gophers had nearly ceased to be relevant – after going down ten in the second half, Minnesota never really bounced back and a Nate Mason layup at the buzzer was the only thing that kept this loss in the two-possession rule (they’ve now lost seven conference battles like that). Hollins has been playing out of his mind in the last eight games, averaging 21 points during that time, so it’s hard to blame him for a lackluster (and scoreless in the first half) performance. But in case there was any doubt, Hollins is needed.
Northwestern (12-14; 3-10) is building young talent. Alex Olah and Tre Demps each had strong nights, but the game was sealed by freshman. Three – Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey and Nathan Taphorn – combined for 38 points and nine three-pointers, hinting that just maybe the Wildcats have something brewing in Evanston. It’s easy to look good, of course, when 15 three-pointers fall, coach Chris Collins joked, but on the heels of an overtime win vs. Iowa, this was a big one for Northwestern, team with plenty of athleticism and decent size. The amazing thing is that the seniors aren’t even involved. No one who scored a single point for Northwestern tonight will be gone next season.
Minnesota hosts Northwestern tonight at 8 p.m. at Williams Arena. Watch on Big Ten Network or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Four things to watch as Minnesota tries to rebound from a 90-71 loss at Indiana on Sunday:
Shooting, again. The Gophers defense was, well, less than effective vs. Indiana on Sunday, allowing 18 three-pointers, mostly out of the zone. I'm guessing we'll see more zone tonight against Northwestern, with Minnesota's mid-conference success coming not in small part to its success. But while Wildcats are no Indiana, they can shoot a little bit too. On the year, they currently rank fifth in the conference in shooting from downtown, making 35.8 percent of their attempts. Can Minnesota shut down Northwestern's long-ball hopes? If not, it could be a long two weeks.
DeAndre, revamped. Before Sunday night's game, senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu was deeply mired in a 9-for-42 (21.4 percent) shooting slump that spanned six games. After getting crushed by Indiana, Mathieu -- who had 12 points on 6-for-11 shooting -- called the bounceback bittersweet, but the Gophers will be better if the resurgence bleeds into a strong scoring stretch from the Knoxville native. Tonight, he'll have to prove he can do it in a much different setting.
Pace. Speaking of which, tonight's opponent couldn't bring much more different of a style. When Northwestern wins, it's usually a product of a defense that rebounds well and limits shots inside. Second-year coach Chris Collins also likes to slow it down and make teams execute in the half court. Northwestern plays a sluggish pace, averaging 61 possessions per game, which ranks 329th nationally. Minnesota will need to speed the Wildcats up in order to play its game.
Matchups. Northwestern, with two just two conference wins, doesn't have the reputation that some of Minnesota's recent opponents do. But the Wildcats do have talent. Redshirt junior Tre Demps and intriguing freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh aptly root the backcourt. McIntosh has a top-100 assist rate, but he also leads the team with 13.1 points and spells improvement for the future. Demps has the experience and is a 40.4 percent three-point shooter. Both will give Mathieu and fellow senior Andre Hollins plenty to deal with. Then there's the 7-foot, shot-blocking Alex Olah, who has five double-doubles on the year, ranking third in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Michigan State's Branden Dawson.
Speaking of luck... Minnesota isn't the only one who has lost a lot of close games. Before Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa on Sunday, the Wildcats had lost ten straight, but six of those have come by eight points or fewer.
So here the Gophers are: 5-8 in the conference, fresh on the heels of a shellacking at the hands of Indiana but with a three-game winning streak (and three of four) still fresh in minds.
Is the NCAA tournament in the picture? Is Minnesota in the conversation?
Right now, the Gophers prospects look very slim. But with five games remaining, the team is starting the talk.
"We have not talked about the NCAA tournament at all this year," coach Richard Pitino said in a news conference on Tuesday. "I know it surprises people but we haven't. But we talked about it yesterday ... we've got four seniors who play substantial minutes who want to go to an NCAA tournament so I know that's on their minds."
One of those seniors is Andre Hollins, who has certainly been playing like he's got dreams of the Big Dance on his brain. In the last eight games, Hollins has led the team in scoring seven times and is averaging 21.3 points and 4.4 rebounds. It has, without a doubt, been the best all-around stretch of his career, as he keeps one eye on its finish.
"It's on our minds a lot, especially since we know last year we were that close to making it," Hollins said. And especially our seniors... we all experienced the NCAA tournament. We know what it takes and we know what it's like to play in there. It's an unbelievable environment. I want to leave playing my best basketball and playing in the NCAA tournament.
"At the beginning of the season, you don't really think about this time, but you know, it's fast approaching. I'm just going to cherish every moment of it. I see the big picture but I'm taking it one game at a time, one practice, one game at a time and trying to give it my all each day so at the end I know I gave it my all. Hopefully it will result in an NCAA tournament berth."
Last year, the Gophers fell just off the tournament bubble after putting up an 8-10 conference record and winning just one game in the Big Ten tournament. But even though Minnesota is just one win off from its record through this point last season (5-8 now compared with 6-7 then), the Gophers' strength of schedule isn't at all similar. Last season, the Gophers landed in the top ten nationally. This year, after getting crushed 90-71 at Indiana, Minnesota sits at No. 82.
At this point, with the Gophers currently tenth in the Big Ten standings -- in what has been an overall disappointing year for the league -- Minnesota might have to win out to be considered. That would include a victory at Michigan State and a pair vs. overwhelming favorite Wisconsin -- which would account for the only two ranked wins the Gophers have on the year.
The formula is a bit overwhelming.
"I think the biggest thing is you can't overlook tomorrow," Pitino said, meaning Northwestern (8 p.m. BTN). "This team came in and beat us last year. We need quality wins and we've got games up on our schedule, quality wins, tough opponents ... we've got opportunities ahead but we cannot overlook Northwestern."
Early in the second half, Richard Pitino had some extra words for Joey King after a timeout was over and the power forward had retaken his seat on the bench.
The coach put his face up to King's and let him have it.
Yes, several times King was slow to close out on a perimeter shooter, and he -- like every player in maroon and gold -- was scored on plenty.
But that wasn't Pitino's biggest concern -- his rants revolved around rebounding.
"He wasn't boxing out," Pitino said either.
He wasn't the only one. Rebounding has been a concern for this year's Minnesota team all year: the Gophers rank last in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage and during the Gophers' 0-5 slump to open conference play, Pitino felt the need to implement elementary box-out drills in practice once more, something that would otherwise be considered a time-waster in the heart of the Big Ten slate.
Sunday's 90-71 blowout loss at Indiana brought a new low despite a rare matchup in which Minnesota had the size advantage.
The Hoosiers have out-rebounded ten of 13 Big Ten teams this year even with their undersized lineup, so the Gophers losing the battle on the boards wasn't completely shocking. But Minnesota didn't just lose, it was embarrassed. The Gophers managed just 16 boards vs. the Hoosiers, ten fewer than their next lowest total all season and less than half of Indiana's total (35). The Hoosiers -- who hadn't held a team to fewer than 21 rebounds this year -- grabbed ten offensive rebounds despite the fact that they shot a jolting 59.3 percent from the field. That means Indiana grabbed 45.5 percent of its misses, and it converted about half of those into points, tallying 11 on second chances.
That's a recipe for disaster.
"Obviously, when a team sets a school record for threes (Indiana had 18), you're disappointed," Pitino said. "But the rebounding was what really, really disappointed me ... we did not do a good job of that at all."
Part of this is due to Minnesota's zone, which is tougher to rebound out of because of the naturally created hole in the middle. Sunday, with a lower percentage of rebounds falling their way, starting center Mo Walker and power forward Joey King combined for just a single rebound. Minnesota's guards, meanwhile, struggled to corral the long rebounds created by all the perimeter shots Indiana took. That's mostly a matter of effort and blocking out their man when it comes to Indiana, the league's smallest team.
"They take a lot of shots that people are not ready for," Andre Hollins said. "It's a lot of long shots and they get a lot of long rebounds. That was one of the things that hurt us, rebounding out of the zones. They got a lot of long rebounds and we didn't grab them."
The sluggish performance on the glass was, after Indiana's three-point barrage, probably the biggest contributing factor to the Gophers' loss, and it was another reminder -- with good defensive rebounding teams Northwestern (Wednesday, 8 p.m.) and Wisconsin (Saturday at 11 a.m. and March 5 at 6 p.m.) on deck, along with overall rebounding wizard Michigan State (Feb. 26 at 6 p.m.) -- that there is still a lot of work to be done.
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