(Hat tip to my colleague Master Tesfatsion, who showed up to player access today and collected quotes while I was driving all over the Midwest trying to conquer the weather. Thanks, pal!)
One day after the Gophers home loss to Northwestern, coach Richard Pitino gathered his team at Bierman for a meeting of sorts.
In the worst loss of the year, Pitino wasn't worried about missed shots and missed stops. He was worried that his team had stopped having fun.
"We had a nice heart-to-heart as a team," the coach said.
"That was the first game I felt we did not enjoy being out there. I sensed that we were putting too much pressure on ourselves about making the tournament. I sensed the 'Here we go again, the Gophers are going to lose again in February.' I think that's getting to them a little bit."
It seems it would be hard not to. The Gophers have faired pretty badly in the month of February in the last few years, and a lot of the players have been on the team long enough to remember the slides:
Last year, the Gophers lost four of seven games in February (although they did also earn their signature win over then-No. 1Indiana at the end of the month). Two years ago, they lost seven of eight in February. In 2010-11, they lost six of seven games this month.
Starting off this February with a loss may have reignited that some. Pitino said he could tell the players were feeling that way with their body language, and when DeAndre Mathieu was arguing with the officials over call after call -- things, the coach said, his point guard wouldn't normally being so caught up in.
"I could sense in that game, they were [saying] 'Oh god, we can't lose to Northwestern at home,'" Pitino said. "But why not? They're a good program, they're a good team, they're doing a lot of really good things in the league.
"I think it was that 'I never want to lose.' but I think that seeing that, brought it to light. They just really didn't look like they were enjoying themselves that game. Every game other than that, they've looked like they're enjoying themselves, and I think that's just the fear of failure."
Pitino told the team to forget all of that, and enjoy the process, noting that many of the best memories come from big games in the middle of the season, not ones at the end (When he asked the team their favorite memory from last year, everyone replied their home win over Indiana).
Austin Hollins said that bouncing back from bad losses was tougher a year ago, but that this team has responded differently so far this season.
"I think it's easy to [become frustrated] at times with media and everybody talking about it, the NCAA tournament and getting in and bad losses and good wins," he said. "At times you can get carried away and think about that stuff, but you really have to focus on what's in front of you.
"When we lose, I think guys are eager to get back on the court, eager to get a win. I don't think it's like past years. And we're going to keep working in practice every day ... to make sure that doesn't happen again."
HOLLINS OUT AGAIN
Pitino said he expected Andre Hollins to practice "sparingly" on Tuesday, but was "assuming" the star guard wouldn't play once more at Purdue. It will be the Gophers' fourth game without Hollins, who severely sprained his left ankle in the opening seconds of the game against Wisconsin on Jan. 22.
The coach said Hollins can run in a straight line but can't cut. The Memphis native was a big part of what allowed Minnesota to beat Purdue at home on Jan. 5. Hollins had 17 points and five assists in that one.
"Losing your best player is not easy," Pitino said. "I thought we were moving in the right direction. It's tough not having Andre. I mean, he is a major, major part of what we're doing, and now guys are playing out of position. They're not used to playing those roles. Daquein McNeil is playing our backup point. He is not used to doing that."
PITINO TELLS AMELIA SHE'S WRONG
Pitino was eager to respond to my blog from yesterday on how poorly the Gophers have played so far this season (see video above). His take:
"I don't think there are as big of issues as you guys are making it out, and my good friend Amelia Rayno is not here and I was going to get on her about it. I don't tink the defense is atrocious by any means -- I saw that, I don't see it. If you go back and study the film, Nebraska hit tough shots. You go back and against Northwestern -- that three he hit at the end of the game, under two minutes? That was a tough shot. Wisconsin game we played great team defense. So if there is one issue that we have defensively, it's fouling.
"Other than that, statistically, everyone looks at these numbers, KenPom, but you've got to look at our field goal percentage defense in the conference too, now, so it's probably not as bad as you guys think it is. Just watching the games -- these teams are hitting some tough shots."