The blueprint is now out on how to shut down the Gophers: play zone.
It might not be the preferred style for all men’s basketball opponents, but why should those schools defend Minnesota any other way when the results look like this? In the past four games, primarily against zones, the Gophers shot only 36 percent (86-for-239) from the floor. Their field-goal percentage of 43.1 ranks 12th among Big Ten teams.
“We better be prepared for more zone because teams are going to watch that film and surely game plan accordingly,” coach Richard Pitino wrote in his blog Thursday.
Being away from Williams Arena also likely has something to do with the team’s shooting slump. A stretch of 18 days and five consecutive games away from their home court continues Friday night, when college basketball for the first time takes over U.S. Bank Stadium, site of the Final Four in April. This “neutral site” game for the Gophers against Oklahoma State is part of a Final Four warm-up event featuring college doubleheaders Friday and Saturday night.
The Cowboys (4-2) are coming off an impressive 90-77 victory over then-No. 19 LSU in Orlando on Sunday. The Gophers (5-1) were far from impressive Monday, when they shot 29.2 percent in a 68-56 loss at Boston College. It was their worst shooting performance since last Jan. 13, when they shot 28.8 percent in a 26-point home loss to Purdue.
Gophers coaches are working on a better game plan against the zone, but players have their own improving to do, according to junior Amir Coffey.
“We’ve got to hit shots and be confident in our jump shooting,” he said. “A lot of teams are zoning us right now. So it’s just working on our zone attack in practice and having the confidence to knock down shots from behind the arc.”
A sixth consecutive game away from Williams Arena comes Sunday, when early Big Ten play starts at Ohio State. The Gophers won’t return to the Barn until Wednesday against Nebraska.
“[Playing on the road] I’m sure has a little something to do with it,” Pitino said about the shooting woes. “But you can’t let that affect your defense, your rebounding, your [diving for] loose balls. Things like that.”
Hustle plays and toughness down the stretch were how the Gophers beat Texas A&M, Santa Clara and Washington in the Vancouver Showcase last week. They found ways to win without shooting well. Pitino thought his guys were establishing an identity in Canada.
“I have asked our team often, ‘How would you describe the Gophers if you were watching us play?’ ” Pitino wrote Thursday. “Good teams have an identity. In our league, if adjectives such as toughness and grit aren’t used, then you’re not going to win. Plain and simple.”
Teams often rely on their captains to right the ship when adversity hits. But Pitino said guard Dupree McBrayer, one of two senior captains with Jordan Murphy, needs coaches and teammates to be there for him emotionally right now, as his mother is in poor health. The Queens native was excused from Monday’s morning shootaround in Boston to visit her in New York.
“We have to do our best to support him, as well as to keep him confident,” Pitino said of McBrayer, who is shooting 3-for-25 from three-point range his past five games.
Murphy, who fouled out for the first time this season Monday, said he also can do his part by providing an inside scoring presence against zone defenses.
“I have to be careful when I reach and go for stuff,” Murphy said. “In the end, it’s all on me and not anyone else.”