DeAndre Mathieu shook his head, struggling to process what had just happened. Minutes earlier, the Gophers men’s basketball team had dropped yet another close conference game, this time to Iowa after Mathieu’s shot sank a fraction of a second after time expired.
He didn’t have the answers, much like his team on the Williams Arena floor. Put the loss in context, and it’s even more dramatic: In the past 2½ weeks, the Gophers have dropped five consecutive games to open Big Ten play.
They have used a variety of ways to tumble to the bottom of the 14-team Big Ten standings. They have twice charged back from deficits of 13 or more, and they have also twice held second-half leads of nine or more. One common thread: those dramatic finishes. Tuesday’s loss marked the fourth time in five games the Gophers lost by one or two possessions.
Asked what the key to closing tight games will be for this team, Mathieu sighed.
“I don’t know,” Mathieu said. “I have no idea. I don’t have any words, really. … Sometimes you need luck, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve got luck on our side right now.”
The Gophers will look for luck and anything else that could lead to Big Ten victory No. 1 on Saturday against Rutgers (10-8, 2-3), a team that many picked to finish in the slot the Gophers now occupy: last place.
How did they get there? Here is a look at the biggest reasons:
The Gophers’ performance from the charity stripe has been a concern all season, but they have shot only 64.1 percent in Big Ten play, second worst in the league. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as the Gophers are losing opportunities as well.
Against Iowa, a game the Gophers ultimately lost 77-75, Elliott Eliason and Nate Mason each missed the front end of a one-and-one in the closing minutes, meaning their team missed out on a potential four points.
Starting Thursday, Pitino had every player making less than 70 percent shooting extra free throws before and after practice. “When you lose four games by a total of one or two possessions, it crushes you,” he said.
The numbers aren’t terrible: The Gophers have actually forced three more turnovers than they have made in conference play. But that’s a far cry their plus-7.3 nonconference turnover margin.
The way Minnesota has turned the ball over, however, has been egregious. At Michigan, the Gophers threw the ball directly out of bounds eight times, by coach Richard Pitino’s count, a performance he still seems baffled by. Ohio State scored 21 points off the Gophers’ live-ball turnovers in the Buckeyes’ 74-72 overtime victory Jan. 6 at Williams Arena.
The Gophers offense just hasn’t been the same dynamic version it was against lesser competition in November and December. Much of that can be pinned on two players: Andre Hollins, mired in the worst shooting slump of his career (12-for-58, 20.7 percent), and fellow senior guard DeAndre Mathieu, once the Big Ten assist-to-turnover leader but now with an inverted ratio of just 13 assists to a stunning 20 turnovers in Big Ten play.
As bad as some Gophers’ trends look, they have been worse at the end of their games. In the final six minutes of the four regulation Big Ten losses and the five minutes of overtime against Ohio State (14.1 percent of their total minutes), the Gophers have gone 7-for-17 from the free-throw line, turned over the ball 14 times (21.5 percent of their total turnovers), fouled 17 times (19.3 percent of their fouls) and been outscored 60-38 while allowing opponents to shoot 68.1 percent from the field.
“We’re going to be in a lot of close games,” Pitino said. “That’s just the reality of where we’re at right now. We’re going to be in a lot of close games so if we can’t win them, we’re going to struggle, so we’ve got to figure that out.”