Read my full game story on Minnesota’s 68-64 loss to Purdue here.
Three quick observations after the Gophers’ fourth loss by seven points or fewer:
Setting up the big play/ avoiding a familiar rut. In the last two games, the Gophers have gotten the ball with under 50 seconds on the clock with the chance to either tie the score or take the lead. Both times, Minnesota has come up short. As coach Richard Pitino pointed out tonight, the scenarios were different. Against Illinois, the Gophers were simply out of position on the biggest play of the night. Against Purdue, at least they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, but Pitino credited the Boilermakers’ defense for getting his team out of its game plan. But both cases resulted in an unideal three-point shot as time expired. On Wednesday, first the Gophers had to call a time out because they couldn’t get anything going. Then Bakary Konate was supposed to roll off a screen, but didn’t after Purdue slipped under. Ultimately, with the clock ticking down, Carlos Morris had to take over from beyond the arc. There are probably a blend of issues here – not the least of which is the overwhelming youth and inexperience on the team -- but the late-play deficits are a concern until proven otherwise, particularly given how last year went. This team is different, certainly, but failing to make the winning at the end feels all too familiar (hint: Minnesota lost nine one-or-two possession games last year).
Free woes. Judging by the way the Gophers performed from the foul line in the last two games – particularly in late-game scenarios – one might assume Minnesota is the worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten. Not the case. Unlike a lot of offensive categories, the Gophers sit fifth in the league in free throw rate. But high-pressure situations seem to be a different story. Tonight, it was most of the story, with Minnesota missing four of six down the stretch. The Gophers have also shot under 50 percent from the stripe in each of the last two games. The team says it practices its foul shots before and after practice, and really, we’re probably talking about a mental block or nerves here, mostly. But it’s absolutely killing the Gophers and should be mission No. 1 until it improves. Minnesota will be limited in what it can do all season, so all the more reason the Gophers should be knocking down their freebies.
Mason’s growth wasted, for now. Lost in the scuffle of the worst losing streak in nearly four decades is the fact that sophomore point guard Nate Mason is playing pretty well right now. He’s scored 59 points in the last three games, and tonight he added a new career-high 12 assists. He’s been in attack mode recently, driving to the hoop instead of relying on threes, and he’s piped up a lot more in huddles and on the court. He also seems to be the player that’s taking the losses the hardest – and believe me, the locker room is a tough place to be – possibly because he realizes he has to reach the next level yet if Minnesota is to turn its season around at any point this year. Unfortunately, it’s tough when your go-to guy is also the best at setting up plays. Against Illinois, it was his looooong three-pointer miss that essentially forced overtime when no one else could find a way to help. Tonight, he didn’t get the chance. But if the Gophers are going to get over the hump, they need to get the ball to Mason and live with both his misses and ultimately, his successes.