Perhaps never have we seen DeAndre Mathieu's worth as much as we did on Sunday, when he had the worst game of his Gophers career.
The undersized Minnesota point guard scored 13 points in a road game at Nebraska, but it was the nine turnovers -- that's right, nine -- that lingered after the ugly result, contributing in a big way to the ultimate 82-78 loss by the Gophers (who had 13 turnovers overall).
You know distinctly what you have when you don't have it.
For the most part this season, Mathieu has been a steady and highly productive presence at floor general. Certainly, the junior has room for improvement -- coach Richard Pitino has expressed his desire for Mathieu to stop trying to force baskets over multiple defenders at the rim, and the guard can get frustrated when things aren't going well for him.
We saw that quite a bit on Sunday, with Mathieu looking defeated at times against Nebraska's trapping defense.
"That really wasn't like him," Malik Smith said. "I think they got in his head early and his body language didn't allow him to play much better after that. But he's a good kid and he'll work hard and learn from it."
The rough outing served as a clear reminder of just how badly Minnesota needs a productive Mathieu, particularly with Andre Hollins out indefinitely with a severe ankle sprain. His speed and efficiency at the point has been one of the reasons the Gophers have been able to be so productive offensively this season, owning the fourth most efficient offense in the nation right now.
Without him guiding the team, the non-Malik Smith offense stalled until the very end, when Mathieu seemed to snap out of his funk a little, getting seven of his 13 points and two of his four assists in the final 4:01.
Mathieu has struggled with turnovers at times -- he's had four or more in six games now -- and it's probably no coincidence that the Gophers have lost five of those, making Tim Miles' game plan of shutting the PG down look pretty smart. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson alluded to the same focus in Maui this season, and with pretty similar results.
It's something Gophers opponents could be doing more in the future, and something Mathieu needs to learn to better attack or else handicap Minnesota.
"They were trapping his ball screens," Pitino said. "A guy with his quickness shouldn't be able to be trapped, and I think it caught him off-guard at first, and we didn't prepare [for that]. But then as we adjusted, he's got to take those guys on more with his quickness."
No one will doubt Mathieu's resolve in doing so. Already this season, we've seen the guard improve and adjust as he isn't able to find as much success in driving through the trees to finish at the basket as he did in JUCO. He's shown that he can be a great passer and create plays for his teammates. He's working on his jumper, and displayed it with a big three-pointer that put the Gophers within seven with just over a minutes to go on Sunday.
After the loss, Mathieu spoke to the media and took admirable blame for his mistakes -- he's never one to accept an excuse, and he has the guts to stand in front of us and say "I really struggled."
Asked how much the team missed Andre Hollins in a game like this, Mathieu replied:
"We really missed him. He could have took the ball out of my hands a bunch in the game, when I was making crucial mistakes, he could have stepped in and played big for us. He always makes big plays. So we missed him in that sense, but as far as the turnovers, it was all me, it was all my fault."
Pitino is probably harder on him and more blunt about his shortcomings than the coach is with any player -- because he knows his point guard is as tough as nails, and he can handle it. In fact, it probably makes Mathieu better -- the former walk-on has played with a chip on his shoulder all of his life.
It's that honesty with himself that pushes Mathieu to continually adjust. He's a major piece of this team. And now, the Gophers need him more than ever.