Read my full game story on Minnesota's 77-75 loss vs Iowa tonight at Williams Arena here.
Three quick observations on the Gophers falling to 0-5:
Just when it seemed like it couldn't get worse ... Minnesota loses its fifth consecutive game in Big Ten play, continues winless in the conference, piles onto the number of losses by two possessions or fewer (a stunning four of the five) and does it, this time, in the most heartbreaking way yet. I've never seen a team that fails over and over in such a dramatically optimistic way. Tonight's last-second, almost-had-it Mathieu layup at the buzzer would have sent the game to overtime. Then who knows what would have happened. As it was, the Gophers were left gaping at the replay, seemingly unable to believe such a shortcoming had happened again. In the league slate, Minnesota now has twice come back from a 13-point deficit or greater; twice had a lead of nine points or more, and still the Gophers have no wins. Afterward, the players were teary-eyed and dumbfounded in the locker room. "That takes a lot out of you," coach Richard Pitino said.
Lineup changes were to prove a point, but Mason is worth keeping. No, Pitino does not have plans to start Charles Buggs and Elliott Eliason for the rest of the year. Both players have plenty of faults of their own, and it's clear that Carlos Morris and Mo Walker are integral to this team's hope of offense. Senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu -- particularly his speed -- will be needed, too, as evidenced in Minnesota's final play when he miraculously almost got a coast-to-coast layup off in 3.5 seconds. But freshman Nate Mason's performance down the stretch -- picking up the team when it looked lifeless and igniting what would wind up being a 27-12 run -- only shows his value. Neglecting to start Mason the rest of the way would be a nod to Mathieu's senior year, but it would also probably put a struggling team at an unnecessary disadvantage. Mason is a playmaker and the Gophers badly need his services.
Starts like that are hard to overcome. After such a comeback, it's easy to forget the first 20 minutes. Minnesota came out looking like it expected to go 0-5 -- the body language and energy at tipoff resembled that of squad that had already been defeated. Pitino said later that the players were feeling "the weight of the world" after such a rough start. Struggling to convert anything against Iowa's length and 2-3 zone, the Gophers shot just 30 percent from the field in the first half. Andre Hollins and Joey King -- the two starters who weren't benched -- combined to go just 1-for-14 from the field. With 16:07 to go in the second, Iowa had charged ahead by 17. The Gophers, picking up defensively, were impressive in plowing back from a gap that felt like a canyon, especially after the last four games. But doing so is a tall task to ask from a winless team. In some ways, it's hard to believe the Gophers could lose in such a way again. In others, it would be more unfathomable for Minnesota to actually preside. Such lopsided halves aren't exactly a winning formula.