One of the biggest critiques of Gophers basketball in recent days is the team’s inability to make free throws, especially in clutch moments. Understandably so: Minnesota is shooting just 69.8 percent from the stripe, 66.1 in conference play. Without the stellar yearlong free-throw shooting of Joey King, the Gophers’ overall percentage would fall to 67.1 percent, last in the league by a mile.
What makes this fact more interesting – or maddening, depending on your perspective – is that Minnesota actually LEADS the Big Ten in free-throw attempts.
So essentially, the Gophers are taking what should be a major strength and turning it into a weakness. If Minnesota increased its efficiency at the stripe by ten percent, for example, in conference play – from 66 percent to 76 percent, the Gophers would have an extra 19 points to account for. Given that they’ve lost the last four by a total of 20 points, that’s a hefty chunk of scoring left on the table.
What’s to be done? Well, there isn’t much. Typically, when you see a team that shoots badly from the free-throw line, it’s a yearlong trend. Free-throw shooting isn’t like many other elements of the game – it can’t always be tweaked and improved through practice and technique or even repetition. Free-throw shooting is more about mental focus and confidence than anything.
The players have said that they shoot free throws before and after practice and coach Richard Pitino said last night on his radio show on 1500-a.m. that if the players don’t hit at least 70 percent, they’re assigned extras. But he also hesitates to put a huge spotlight on the issues, given the uniqueness of the problem.
“It’s tough because if you put too much on it, then it becomes mental with certain guys,” he said. “So you just want them to be comfortable, stick to their routine. But we need to start making them because it’s too crucial to what we do offensively, it’s very important to put pressure on the [defense].”
Pitino told 1500’s Mike Grimm on his radio show that Carlos Morris was back in Minneapolis on Monday after missing the team’s trip to Indiana (a 74-68 loss) over the weekend due to the funeral of a family friend in his home state of Florida.
Morris, who is averaging 10.4 points and four rebounds a game, will travel with the team to Northwestern for the game on Thursday.
Pitino said he encouraged the senior guard to go be with his family.
“It’s part of life unfortunately,” he said. “I didn’t really think too long and hard about it, I just said ‘Go home’ … It’s a difficult situation. He lost a friend and he wants to be with the team but he also wants to be at the funeral. I told him whatever you want to do is fine with me. Don’t feel like you’re letting the team down, don’t feel like you’re letting me down. Certainly, it’s bigger than basketball.”
New York, New York.
Pitino waxed about the opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden again on Monday evening, where the Gophers will face Ohio State in 2018 as part of the Big Ten’s Super Saturday double header for that season. The Big Ten last week unveiled four basketball matchups to be played at the iconic Manhattan arena over four years, with the first – Michigan vs. Penn State – in the books on Saturday after a 79-72 Wolverines win. Gophers hockey will go up against Michigan State at the Garden on the same day in 2018.
“I like it and don’t like it because we lose a home game, which I don’t like,” Pitino said. “But I love playing at Madison Square Garden, it’s an awesome experience. Hopefully if we do have alum in New York they can come to the game as well as people who want to travel. I heard it was a great event for Michigan and Penn State just this past weekend. I love playing there, we get to take Dupree back home as well as we do recruit New York, so I’m excited about it.
Pitino called MSG his favorite place to coach, recalling the old Big East tournament when Louisville (he was there as an assistant under his father, Rick Pitino) was in the league.
“The old Big East tournament was the best. I used to go to it at Providence College, take the train to the city. You walk out of the arena and you’re right in the heart of everything. It’s awesome. There’s no better place to be when you win than when you win in Madison Square Garden …You feel like a pro when you’re playing there, you feel like a pro coach, you feel like you’re coaching an NBA team because all the lights are so bright, it’s dark around it, and there is something special about it.”
Who does Pitino like in the Superbowl? Carolina, all the way, he told Grimm.
“Everybody will go Broncos because they’re just fighting the Carolina deal for whatever reason,” he said. But I think Carolina is the best team… they’ve got the best players, they’ve got the most swagger and all those things. I’ll take them any day.”
What’s more, you – yes you – might have a chance to watch the big game with the Gophers coach. He pledged on air to “have a big party and invite everyone” if the Gophers win at Northwestern on Thursday. There’s a slight chance he wasn’t serious but hey if it’s said on the airwaves, it’s fact, right? I'll bring the pulled pork.