Richard Pitino pursed his lips and stared blankly. The Gophers men’s basketball coach had just muttered replies to a dozen questions regarding his team’s parade of mistakes and failures.
What caused the team to toss the ball out of bounds so many times?
“I have no answers,” he said.
What does he say to his players after a rough run like this?
“That’s between us and the team.”
What does he think of this Big Ten, four games and four losses in?
What would it take for his team to finally win a conference game?
Less than five minutes into an astringent news conference Saturday, Pitino made it clear he was through. The second-year Gophers coach and his players haven’t figured it out yet. So Pitino went with the simplest answer he could muster.
“Score more points than the opponent,” he said, and then walked away from the podium.
Since Big Ten play began, the Gophers have, for various reasons, fallen short of reaching that basic goal. A 62-57 loss at Michigan on Saturday was the latest, spurring the worst moods of the season in the ensuing interviews.
Back home, the Gophers take on Iowa on Tuesday lacking the optimism that preceded their previous Williams Arena appearance — and another loss, to Ohio State — and more of another sentiment: desperation. They need a win, and they know it.
“We’ve just got to learn how to finish games,” Carlos Morris said on Saturday. “That’s basically it. ... We’ve definitely got to win now.”
Pitino admits he doesn’t have the answers, but he is making changes in his search for them. The frustrated coach said Monday he plans to shake up the starting lineup — perhaps significantly.
Although Pitino wouldn’t name players he will bench, he lauded the early performance of freshman Nate Mason, who could step in for senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu. Mathieu has coughed up 17 turnovers to just eight assists in the four Big Ten games, while Mason is averaging 7.2 points with eight assists and three turnovers in that span.
Pitino also said he wanted to get freshman Gaston Diedhiou involved, hinting that he could even start him over forward Joey King, who is averaging only 1.8 rebounds per game in Big Ten play. That despite the fact that the 6-9 Senegal native has not played a minute of college ball.
“I give our guys a lot of offensive freedom,” Pitino said of the potential moves. “We’ve got to make sure they understand that freedom can’t be abused. … You’ve got to try everything and certainly we’re going to try.”
The first pair of back-to-back home Big Ten games is on deck for the Gophers, as prime a time as any to tinker. The Hawkeyes bring a solid defense Tuesday, and Rutgers comes to town having just upset No. 7 Wisconsin on Sunday.
These games start off perhaps the friendliest section of the Big Ten schedule. Five of the Gophers’ next seven are at home, none against teams currently ranked. The road games — at struggling Nebraska and Penn State, like the Gophers winless in conference play — aren’t especially intimidating, although the Gophers have won only two conference road games since the start of Pitino’s tenure.
Simply put, with a tough stretch behind them and a tough finish looming, the victories need to start coming, lineup shake-up or no.
“We definitely let one slip through our fingers,” King said. “It’s just important that we regroup and get ready for this home stretch that we have coming up.”