After yet another near miss -- this time against Michigan at Williams Arena on Wednesday night -- even coach Richard Pitino seemed exasperated by the Gophers' late commitment to driving to the basket.
Throughout more than 32 minutes of mostly terrible defense and lifeless offense against the Wolverines, the Gophers inexplicably hoisted up 17 three-pointers, making just four of them. In all, Minnesota attempted 19 from downtown, making no more.
Now, this wasn't just a bad shooting night. Minnesota, with the exception of Joey King -- who put up five of those -- just isn't a team with much shooting talent. It's not the Gophers' thing. Pitino knows it, everyone watching knows it, but the Gophers haven't seemed to figure it out yet.
"It's hard to tell a guy 'Hey, you're not a good three-point shooter,'" a frustrated Pitino said after the 82-74 loss. "You've got to find ways to manipulate them.
"But we've got to stop shooting so many threes because we're not a great shooting team and we're a pretty good driving team."
Finally, the Gophers began operating by those guidelines with 7:23 to go. Minnesota started sending a three-guard attack into the lane to get to the hoop for a score or to get fouled. Suddenly, it was a new game -- the drive was responsible for a 19-4 run that brought the Gophers within 2 with 1:37 left. It probably wasn't a coincidence that Minnesota attempted just one three-pointer in that span after trying to out-shoot Michigan -- which nailed 14 of 25 -- at the start of the game.
"We're going to lose that battle, that's for sure," Pitino said of the early three-point fervor. "That's got to be our identity, driving the ball. We're not Michigan, that's not who we are. We don't have that type of personnel right now."
Several times this season we've seen that same attack nearly stir a comeback; in a couple of cases, it's been the late reversal of that beneficial trend -- going back to settling for threes -- that tossed away the surge and caused Minnesota to fall short.
It's hard to understand why this storyline hasn't clicked with the players. Minnesota is making just 27.8 percent of its shots, second worst in the Big Ten. But for the most part, it's still been bombs away. The Gophers have put up an average of 20.5 three-pointers a game in the last six games, just 0.3 threes sky of three-point percentage leader Michigan State's average in league play, and rained a program-high 36 attempts against Illinois on Jan. 23.
Sophomore Nate Mason said on Wednesday that the Gophers have stuck with the long ball because of their confidence in their own shots, and the prevalence of open opportunities. Perhaps it's time for a reality check, however, on just why those opportunities are so readily available. The Gophers seem to be realizing that attacking the basket brings good results. But the equally important side effect of that switch is that when Minnesota is driving, its usually not doing so much shooting.
"We had open shots, we just missed them here and there," Mason said after Wednesday's game. "The second half, we were determined to get to the rim. The biggest difference was the first half we were taking what they were giving us and in the second half, we were just taking what we're best at doing."
Gilbert back in action.
After missing five games with a dislocated finger on his left hand, freshman Ahmad Gilbert returned to the court against Michigan on Wednesday for a four-minute stint, finishing with two rebounds.
"We'll work him back slowly into the rotation," Pitino said. "It takes time with guys with injuries. He's been out almost a month. So just keep developing himm giving him his opportunities and see how it goes."
Gilbert said afterward that his finger is pain free but he has to keep it taped because it still will not fully extend with the rest of his hand.
But despite that last time he played, he was a starter, Gilbert didn't sound worried about the lineup shift and the fact that he'd have to work his way back to that role if he saw it again.
"I just want to win, so it's anything I can contribute to the team," he said. "When I did get the starting job, it was a surprise to me ...I appreciated it and I just wanted to work harder than usual. On this team I know my role -- I'm a knock-down shooter and I play defense, so when I get in the game I'm just looking forward to getting stops."
Illinois gametime set.
Minnesota travels to Champaign for a matchup at Illinois on Feb. 28. The tipoff for that game was officially set for 7 p.m.