Read my full story on Minnesota’s 76-71 loss to Illinois at home, here.

Three quick observations after yet another loss:

Last play catastrophe and waning confidence. The Gophers controlled their destiny with 32 seconds left in regulation. On the table was the chance to finally stop a skid that began weeks before the holidays and an opportunity to celebrate if just for one night. But whatever coach Richard Pitino had planned (from talking to the players it sounds like a dribble drive off a screen) devolved into a broken play and guard Nate Mason launching an ill-advised, NBA-range three-pointer that bounced off the backboard. By overtime, it appeared the shock had still not worn off because it took the Gophers nearly four minutes to snap out of a sudden fog and by then, of course, it was too late. Place the blame on Pitino, if you want, for not getting his players to execute, or on the players for failing to be in the right spots at the right time. At the heart of it, though, I think is a slow-to-fade fear of losing, again. It’s not going to be easy for the team to shake going forward, either, considering the way this season has gone.

Gophers can lose big, lose small. In the last three games, Minnesota has not gotten its stomach kicked in. For the most part, the Gophers have been competitive. But it’s hard to look at that fact as a silver lining for too long. Last season, as I’m sure most Gophers fans remember, the team got in a season-long rut of losing close games. There were nine of them by two possessions or fewer. Overall, Pitino really hasn’t proven he can coach to win close games. Losing in the last two minutes isn’t exactly a positive story, long term. This is a different team with many young players who are still learning, and improvement, even slow improvement, is valid. But until the current trend changes, fans (and media) will mostly pay attention to the fact that the Gophers are just losing.

Steps for freshmen, again. It might not be what everyone wants to read about in a loss like the one Saturday to a not-very-good team at home. But it’s true. Although the newcomers have plenty of obvious flaws – starting with Kevin Dorsey’s risk-taking, Dupree McBrayers’ shooting and Jordan Murphy’s head-slamming foul troubles – but on Saturday, there were again more signs of getting better for all three. Dorsey had probably his best stretch of the season in the first half, driving to the basket and hitting some huge shots. McBrayer had eight assists. Murphy continues to get more patient at the basket and impact the game in a big way when he can stay on the court. Even Ahmad Gilbert, out with a finger injury, is getting darn good at waving a towel. Small steps can be hard to see when a team is playing as poorly as Minnesota is, but these three represent a big piece of the Gophers’ future and growth, even in bad times, matters.

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