Andre Hollins repeated the phrase over and over.
“We’re right there,” he said five times. The refrain mimicked the broken record that has been the Gophers’ season so far after another Big Ten loss, this time at Nebraska.
At the root of the Gophers’ 1-6 start in the Big Ten are a few incessant shortcomings — one of which has been cast in spotlights following more of the same in the 52-49 undoing Tuesday: free-throw shooting. Minnesota went 9-for-19 (47.4 percent) from the line, its worst performance of the season. But the issue is anything but new.
The misfires began in the season opener against Louisville in Puerto Rico, where the Gophers missed 13 of 33 attempts. The baffling, yearlong trend had begun, and the result is the team ranks 310th out of 345 Division I teams in free-throw percentage at 63.9.
The Gophers are second-to-last in the Big Ten, behind only Michigan State. In seven conference games, Minnesota has struggled even more, managing a conference-worst 61.7 percent.
“It’s just something we haven’t been good at this year, and it’s bitten us,” said Hollins, who was 5-for-9 from the line against Nebraska. “[On Tuesday] it really bit us.”
The Gophers’ struggles at the line have been accentuated with their small margins of defeat. Five of their six conference losses have come by a combined 16 points, and by two or fewer possessions each.
In their six Big Ten losses, opponents have made 43 percent more free throws than Minnesota, while taking only 22 percent more shots from the line. Also in those games, the Gophers have left at least 43 points on the table (68 of 111, 61 percent) — more if you add in the missed front-end shots of one-and-one opportunities. Several of those missed front ends have come in clutch situations, such as the two instances Tuesday in Lincoln, Neb., when the Gophers were needing every point in a low-scoring game. The 10 misses in all Tuesday were a difference-maker.
“The reality of the situation is when you miss 10 free throws on the road like that — in all these one-, two-possession games — you’re not going to win,” coach Richard Pitino said after the game.
In the last couple of weeks, Pitino has assigned the biggest culprits extra work. Players shooting less than 70 percent — Mo Walker, Nate Mason, Elliott Eliason, Charles Buggs and Bakary Konate — have been camped out at the free-throw line before and after each practice.
It hasn’t seemed to make a difference, and Tuesday Pitino sounded out of ideas for inspiring a better showing in one of the game’s most basic elements.
“We work on it,” he said. “We talk about it, we work on it. I don’t know of any other thing. We shoot a bunch of them.”