FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. – With five starters returning from a 24-win NCAA tournament team, the Gophers men’s basketball team earned a preseason Top 25 ranking and was projected as a Big Ten title contender.
You would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t say those things.
The reality is coach Richard Pitino has a much different team than the one that surprised the nation and made a 16-game turnaround last season.
Pitino’s team isn’t nearly as stout defensively, lacks depth in the frontcourt and drops off significantly with experience and talent when it goes to the bench.
The No. 14 Gophers suffered their third loss in the past four games Saturday night, falling 95-79 at Arkansas in front of 17,583 at Bud Walton Arena.
Minnesota proved it has a long way to go to live up to the high expectations this season.
“Certainly, we have our deficiencies we need to fix,” Pitino said. “But the sky’s not falling. We’re sitting here at 8-3. We’re back home, which is great. This was a tough game for us, but it was a beneficial win for us last year. These home-and-homes are difficult. But they’re good for our team if we learn from it — if we stay connected and stay confident. And I think we will.”
Jordan Murphy finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds for his 11th straight double-double. Amir Coffey had 18 points and Nate Mason 17.
The Razorbacks (7-2) never trailed Saturday and shot 57 percent from the field. Jaylen Barford led five Arkansas players in double figures with 22 points. Daniel Gafford had 16 points on 8-for-8 shooting and six blocks in his first career start.
The Gophers are still an NCAA tournament-worthy team with quality wins against Providence and Alabama, but losses to Miami (Fla.), Nebraska and now Arkansas likely will drop them out of the Top 25 on Monday.
Pitino said he’s never focused on rankings, but his players started to look at them.
“Coach did a good job telling us not to look at it,” junior Dupree McBrayer said. “But once we got higher and higher people started looking at it and it got in our heads.”
Minnesota was a three-point underdog at Arkansas, always surprising for a top-15 team against an unranked opponent.
But the Gophers definitely looked unequipped to handle the Razorbacks’ trademark “40 Minutes of Hell” up-tempo style, allowing them to shoot 67 percent in the first half.
Reggie Lynch’s foul trouble forced Minnesota to rely on a depleted bench already missing Eric Curry from a season-ending knee injury. Lynch was limited to just five points and four fouls in 14 minutes.
Backup center Bakary Konate didn’t make the trip after suffering a concussion earlier in the week. Rarely used reserve Gaston Diedhiou was forced to play 18 minutes after seeing the floor in only two games previously.
After leading 50-42 at halftime, Arkansas saw its lead cut to six points twice early in the second half. The latter was on a baseline dunk from Coffey to make it 54-48.
The Razorbacks sealed the game with a 9-0 run after Lynch picked up his fourth foul around the 13-minute mark. Barford’s three-pointer extended it to a 77-58 lead with eight minutes remaining.