Coming off two NCAA tournaments in the last three years under Richard Pitino, the Gophers men’s basketball team wasn’t expecting to be fighting in early December just to stay above .500.
Falling in the Big Ten opener 72-52 Monday at Iowa means the Gophers have their worst record through the first nine games since 2006-07.
Seven newcomers and a handful of returning players have struggled to play well together against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, which doesn’t ease up Sunday against No. 3 Ohio State at Williams Arena.
Pitino’s team has struggled in a variety of ways so far this year, but these are the five biggest reasons for the five losses.
Backcourt inconsistency – The Gophers filled their starting backcourt holes with two sit-out transfers in Marcus Carr and Payton Willis, who had started games at Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively. They teamed up with sophomore Gabe Kalscheur, one of the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten last season. They hoped to become one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten. While their scoring numbers aren’t bad overall, their lows have been near rock bottom. In losses at Utah and Butler, Willis had 15 points combined on 5-for-20 shooting from the field, including 1-for-11 from three. In losses to Butler, Iowa and DePaul, Carr scored 15 points combined on 4-for-29 shooting from the field, including 1-for-10 from three. In losses to Oklahoma, Butler, DePaul and Iowa combined, Kalscheur averaged just 6.8 points on 20.9% shooting from the field (9 for 43) and 19.4% from three (6 for 31). Carr followed up his career-best 24-point performance in a win last week vs. Clemson with just two points Monday on 1-for-10 shooting vs. Iowa. Kalscheur had an abrupt end to his double figure scoring streak of five games. He went scoreless (0 for 10 shooting) for just the second time in his career on Monday. The Gophers are hard to beat when Carr and Kalscheur especially are playing at their best but have a slim chance to win when both are at their worst. Settling for too many jump shots, not drawing fouls and failing to get touches in the paint on penetration has contributed to the U backcourt’s horrid performances offensively in losses. Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer were not known for their outside shooting, but they constantly put pressure on defenses attacking the basket last season.
Underdeveloped bench – Pitino is not known to go deep into his bench. That’s been one of the most consistent things during his tenure at Minnesota. To have that much confidence in your starters to play them almost the entire game can pay off when they’re playing well. What about when they’re really, really, really having an off night? That’s happened with the backcourt a few times this year. This summer in Italy, the Gophers had solid contributions from freshmen guards Tre’ Williams and Bryan Greenlee on their foreign tour. Williams even led the team in scoring, but he’s averaging just 12 minutes per game. Greenlee is seeing even less playing time at 3.3 minutes per game. Isaiah Ihnen, the top recruit in the 2019 class, hasn’t gotten into the rotation after missing the first three games with a wrist injury. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa and senior Michael Hurt have been the only bench players with consistent minutes, but they are not allowed often to play through mistakes. The Gophers rank 338th among 353 Division I basketball teams in bench minutes, per Ken Pom.
Helping Oturu – Sophomore Daniel Oturu has established himself as one of the top centers in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt about that. Through nine games, the 6-foot-10 Cretin-Derham Hall product ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring (18.0), first in rebounding (11.0), second in blocks (3.6) and third in field goal percentage (65.0). He’s putting up All-Big Ten numbers, but the Gophers were searching for more production alongside him in the frontcourt. Senior Alihan Demir struggled in losses to Oklahoma, Butler and Utah scoring a combined 15 points on 6-for-25 shooting with 11 rebounds total. But Demir is starting to feel comfortable playing with Oturu. The Drexel graduate transfer has scored in double figures in three of his last four games. He’s averaging 10.3 points and five rebounds in that span, including 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks at Iowa. Omersa has been Oturu's backup at center when he gets into foul trouble, but he hasn't shown much offensive spark outside of an 11-point game vs. North Dakota.
Not getting to foul line – The biggest difference in scoring for the Gophers last season and this season has been foul shooting. Through nine games last season, Minnesota shot 67% from the line, but made 19 free throws per game. That’s more free throws than the Gophers even attempt this season at about 15 per game – and they’re only making nine of them on average for 62 percent (13th in the Big Ten). On Monday, Pitino was disappointed to see his team only shoot 4 for 8 at the charity stripe in the Iowa loss. Carr and Kalscheur had no free throw attempts in the game. When the shots aren’t falling from three-point range, the Gophers go through seemingly endless scoring droughts that could be shortened by trips to the line. They rank 326th in the nation in percentage of points from foul shooting (13 percent).
Establishing an identity – Pitino quoted New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick about maximizing his team’s strengths before Minnesota’s 18-point win against Clemson last week. Getting the ball inside to Oturu, catch-and-shoot jumpers and defending without fouling were strengths the Gophers emphasized in their most impressive victory of the season. Oturu is a double-double machine like former Gophers star Jordan Murphy. The Gophers are third in the Big Ten with 9.2 threes made per game, but they’ve struggled mightily at times (shot 6 for 25 vs. Iowa's zone defense). Defensive lapses and lack of communication guarding in transition against the Hawkeyes were major issues in the 20-point loss in Iowa City. Can they rely on their defense to keep them competitive when the shots aren't falling in Big Ten play this season? The Gophers ranked 22nd and 48th in the country in defensive efficiency during NCAA tournament teams in 2017 and 2019, but they're at 73rd this year.