With a little more than three minutes to play last Sunday, Andre Hollins got the ball inside to Elliott Eliason, and the Gophers big man scored, sending Williams Arena into a frenzy.
The Gophers had just taken a four-point lead against Indiana and looked certain to end their three-game losing streak. The excitement and intensity — which have become expectations at the Barn — were palpable in the jam-packed rafters.
It was a moment that has felt like many this season. The Gophers’ home-court advantage — and the difference when they are without it — have been exaggerated with renewed interest in the team and new, young coach Richard Pitino. In a raucous Dinkytown setting, the Gophers have gone 4-2 in Big Ten play and downed a pair of ranked teams. Crowds are big, fans are loud and the team seems to feed on the buzz.
“We’ve got an unbelievable home-court advantage,” Pitino said after the Indiana game. “Our fans understood when we really needed them. Like out of timeouts, when we really needed them, they were all on their feet.”
But in hostile environments, it has been a very different story, and one that’s threatening to take over as the Gophers’ identity this season.
The Gophers head to Northwestern on Sunday with the burden of a 1-5 record in Big Ten road games and a résumé that looks vastly different from their home version. In opposing venues, they have crumbled, the most recent version of that narrative coming Thursday in Madison, Wis., where they showed none of the fortitude against Wisconsin that had carried them to a victory in their earlier meeting with their rival at Williams Arena.
The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame the Gophers defense — one of the facets of their game that has been woefully disappointing — on the road, but that really isn’t the case.
While the Gophers do defend shots slightly better at home, both from two-point range (opponents make 45 percent at home and 48 percent on the road) and from behind the arc (36 percent at home and 37 percent on the road), those differences aren’t nearly enough to account for the difference in record. There are, however, several trends that have emerged after 12 conference games that contribute heavily to the lopsided records.
Scoring in the paint: The Gophers don’t attempt many midrange two-point shots, with Pitino actively discouraging the inefficient option, so their offense mostly relies on pounding the ball inside, getting layups off the pick-and-roll and shooting three-pointers.
Counterintuitively, the Gophers have shot worse from long range at home, making 33 percent of their three-point attempts compared with 37 percent on the road. But their inside game has been the difference. Minnesota is making a strong 56 percent of their two-point shots at home, while connecting on only 47 percent on the road. Perhaps the best example of the Gophers taking a team off-balance that way was in the Wisconsin game — also probably the loudest game of the season — when Minnesota scored 48 points in the paint after Andre Hollins went down because of an ankle injury.
“You never know how a team is going to respond when something like that happens — when adversity hits like that,” Austin Hollins said. “In the moment, in the time, we really handled it well.”
Offensive rebounding: The Gophers’ defensive rebounding has gotten the most attention lately — especially with Purdue grabbing an incomprehensible 23 offensive boards in a triple-overtime victory over the Gophers earlier this month. But it has been stellar offensive rebounding at home that has really a difference.
The Gophers are grabbing 35 percent of their offensive rebounds in league play on the road. But at home, that mark is at 41 percent. That means second-chance opportunities and only helps feed into that strong inside game.
“It’s a mind-set, really,” center Mo Walker said. “That you’re going to get the ball, and you’ve just got to go hard after it and grab it.”
Fouling: After thriving in that regard in nonconference play, fouling has become a major problem for the Gophers in the Big Ten slate. Minnesota ranks 195th in the nation in the percentage of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts at 41.3, meaning that for every field goal an opponent attempts, that opponent attempts .413 free throws.
That problem is exacerbated on the road. The Gophers send opponents to the line at a rate of 37.3 percent at home — but on the road that jumps to a whopping 57.9 percent.
“The biggest issue, more than anything, is fouling,” Pitino said. “We’re fouling too much.”
Now, whether the Gophers can flip the script down the stretch — starting Sunday — will probably play a big role in whether they are able to slip into the NCAA tournament, or whether they will have to watch from home.