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Iowa matchup brings challenges, dreams of what could be

As part of doing prep for Iowa (Sunday in Iowa City, 6:30 p.m.), University of Minnesota coach Richard Pitino turned on the Hawkeyes' recent game against Maryland.

But as impressed as Pitino was with this weekend's opponent, he couldn't stop his eyes from wandering to the other team on the court, one who topped Iowa 74-68 on that night, and "raving" about the Terrapins, too, to his wife, Jill.

"What are you watching Maryland?" she asked.

"Maryland has five NBA basketball players in their lineup," Pitino replied. "I'm watching Iowa but I can't turn away from how much talent and length Maryland has too."

Unfortunately for the Gophers, they'll face both squads in the next five days, and while the talents of each are certainly awe-worthy from afar, Pitino will more than have his hands full in the games.

The pair is tied with tied with Indiana at the top of the league and both sit inside the AP top 25's top 5 -- with Maryland at No. 2 and Iowa at No. 4. Each feature the kind of size, athleticism and elite talent that can be scary for any opponent, not to mention a team that is thus far 0-12 in conference play. The Gophers, certainly, will have their work cut out for them simply to remain competitive heading into a likely battle-of-the-worst showdown with Rutgers at Williams Arena on Feb. 28.

"Those two teams are not only at the top of our league, but both of those teams could go to the Final Four and win a National Championship," Pitino said.

But at least in this first matchup, the Gophers can look across the court and dream of what could be.

Iowa is built around veteran talent that coach Fran McCaffery has slowly grown through a lot of regional and in-state recruiting -- three of five starters are from Iowa. 

The success that the Hawkeyes are enjoying this season has felt quick, but in reality it's been anything but. In 2010-11, McCaffery's first season in Iowa City, his team managed just four wins in league play. The next year, they went 8-10 and then in 2013, the Hawkeyes advanced to the title game of the NIT. In 2014, Iowa looked ready to take the next step -- but slumped to finish with seven losses in their final eight games, barely sneaking into the NCAA tournament and then losing in the first four to Tennessee. 

Last year, finally, Iowa broke through. The Hawkeyes finished 12-6 and tied for third in the league. This year, they're among the class of the nation. 

While Pitino's timeline so far is somewhat different from the start of McCaffery's reign at Iowa -- this year is truly ground zero -- the young Minnesota coach is hoping he can foster similar growth in a perennially tough league. 

He pointed to the recent influx of in-state players -- senior transfer Joey King, freshman Jarvis Johnson, who can't play due to a medical issues, sophomore transfer Reggie Lynch and recruits Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt -- as key to that turnaround for Minnesota, just as it was with Iowa, in large part because schools are often more likely to get elite players if they're from the area.

"Your in state talent, those classes have got to be good," Pitino said. "I think [McCaffery] struck while the iron was hot, he developed those guys and did a good job identifying and then just getting those guys older, and now they're reaping the rewards.

"It's difficult for us now to go through it. But I do see what this team can become, I really do."

Pitino on attacking the basket: "That's got to be our identity"

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.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

< >
  • Gophers men's basketball at Iowa

    6:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Iowa at Gophers women's basketball

    7 pm on BTN, 88.5-FM

  • Wild at Vancouver

    9 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Wild at Calgary

    9 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers women's basketball at Indiana

    6 pm on 88.5-FM

  • Maryland at Gophers men's basketball

    7 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Wild at Edmonton

    8 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Timberwolves at Memphis

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Wisconsin at Gophers women's hockey

    7:07 pm

  • Wisconsin at Gophers women's hockey

    3 pm on BTN

  • New York at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

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