The day before the Gophers played host to Illinois, coach Richard Pitino contemplated the worth of his point guard, DeAndre Mathieu.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him; that’s really the great question,” Pitino said. “I think about that a lot.”
Pitino got a good, hard glimpse at that world Wednesday night against the Illini.
At the opening tip-off, the Gophers caught fire, jumping out to a 14-3 lead. Then Mathieu picked up a pair of fouls, and Minnesota’s early strong play came to a screeching half. The guard’s departure started a 21-11 Illinois run, and with the Gophers offense completely stalling in his absence, the Minnesota lead dwindled to three at the break. In the second half, Mathieu was back, but ineffective, harassed into turnovers and inefficiency by Illinois’ traps off screens.
“They did a really good job,” Mathieu said. “Their big man, he hedged really hard. … I struggle with that — every game that I’ve been trapped on ball screens, I struggle.”
Needless to say, the Gophers struggled along with him, falling 62-49.
It’s not a new trend. In Big Ten games when Mathieu has scored at least 10 points, the Gophers are 6-2. In games where he has scored fewer than 10, the Gophers are 0-6.
“DeAndre is really, really important to our team,” Pitino said. “When he plays well, we have a much better chance of winning. … We definitely need him.”
With the Gophers heading to Ohio State on Saturday, Mathieu’s job doesn’t get any easier. The Buckeyes have one of the best defensive backcourts in the league, led by floor general Aaron Craft.
In the teams’ last meeting Jan. 16, Mathieu got the best of that matchup, holding Craft to seven points and helping to force five turnovers. Mathieu had 13 points and five assists, with three turnovers, in a game the Gophers won 63-53.
But since then, Mathieu’s Achilles’ heel has been exposed, first by Nebraska, then week by Illinois.
Pitino said that Mathieu has been working on how to attack the traps in practice but that it’s difficult to simulate opponents’ size and speed.
In an 82-78 loss at Nebraska, Andre Hollins was out because of a severe ankle sprain. Now that he’s back, he needs to help prevent Mathieu from getting in those dangerous spots to begin with.
“We’re just going to have to adjust a little bit,” Hollins said. “It starts in practice. Coming off the screens and kind of backing up a little bit and then attacking. And then getting the ball out in transition and trying to score more efficiently other ways.”
Mathieu demonstrated as well as he has all year in last Sunday’s road win at Northwestern that he can elevate the Gophers to the next level. He had perhaps his best all-around game of the season against the Wildcats, with Pitino noting it was one of the first in which Mathieu simply “took over.”
Looking at the difference between the back-to-back games, it’s hard to miss the Gophers’ reliance on the Knoxville, Tenn., native.
But then, Mathieu craves that. It’s one of the reasons he chose to come to Minnesota instead of Memphis or one of the many other schools that were recruiting him out of junior college.
“I told him you need to go to a place you can play right away,” Pitino said. “Growing up in Tennessee, Memphis is a big-time deal. But they had Joe Jackson.
“[Memphis coach] Josh Pastner was very honest with him and said, ‘It’s going to be tough for you to start and get big-time minutes.’
“I told him ‘You come with us, I’m telling you right now, it’s your spot to lose. Now, if you’re not adequate enough, we’ll figure out other ways to do it. We’ll play Andre at the point. But this is yours to lose.’ ”
That fact, Pitino said, explains a bit of the pair’s unique relationship. The coach is harder on Mathieu than he is on anyone else. He digs into him more on game days and rides him during practice.
Mathieu usually takes it in stride, and often improves his game because of it. At Northwestern, the guard appeared to lack intensity somewhat in the first half. But after Pitino laid into him at halftime, Mathieu had one of his better second halves of the season, scoring 13 of his 15 overall points.
“He responds to it,” Pitino said. “I think he knows that by me being so hard on him, that I’m relying on him. By me doing that to him is telling him, ‘This team needs you.’ So I think he likes being a very important part of this team. He wants that. He likes that role. He relishes it.”
More than anything, Mathieu said, he’s thankful to have a coach who knows how to push his buttons and who gave him the chance he’s always wanted.
“We’re a lot alike,” Mathieu said. “Really fiery, competitors, little guys. I’m just glad I came and played for him, because he really gets me going even though he shouldn’t have to — he sticks with me, rides it out with me, has the ultimate confidence in me and I’m just happy to be here.”