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Gophers pregame: Even as the season winds down, consistency in small ways is a focus

Minnesota (6-18; 0-12) vs. No. 4 Iowa (19-5; 10-2) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
Sunday, Feb. 14 at 6:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1500-a.m.
The spread: Minnesota +19.5

Pregame reading:

Gophers sophomore Nate Mason has made big strides, but now he wants to win. Click.
A look at tonight's matchup between Minnesota and Iowa. Click.
This week's national insider, on the surprising power conference powers, complete with this week's power poll and lots of notes. Click.
On the day U-M president Eric Kaler announced the start of the AD search, interim Beth Geotz officially threw her hat in the ring. Click.

As the Gophers dive into their toughest two-game stretch of the year -- they'll play No. 2 Maryland at home after Iowa -- fresh off an 0-12 start, the concept of an upset feels distant and unrealistic. While Minnesota has managed to catch some far superior teams off guard in recent weeks and keep the score close, the Gophers' next two opponents aren't likely to fall for the same trick, especially with both coming off losses. Staying competitive in these two games would be a bigger feat. 

But even as the season is now "winding down" as coach Richard Pitino bluntly pointed out the other day, Minnesota should still be looking for positive signs to carry over to next year when the bulk of the group's corps will be back. Working toward consistency, even in small ways, is a good goal. 

Here are three places they could start:

Free throws. Last time out, Minnesota shot 84.2 percent from the stripe, by far the Gophers best of Big Ten play. They still lost the game, but it wasn't as mind-numbing as those close losses Minnesota endured while shooting less than 60 percent. The Gophers couldn't breach 59 percent in three consecutive losses against Illinois, Purdue and Indiana, all by six points or fewer. Many of those misses came in big situations down the stretch. If Minnesota can continue to improve those numbers, it would go a long way to showing focus at the end of games whether the score is tight or the win is out of reach.

Launch the attack. When the Gophers are driving to the basket, they're competitive. When they shoot, for the most part, they're not. It really is that simple -- at least as far as the offense goes -- but for some reason Minnesota has only found a way to put together sporadic stretches of a strong attack game and seems to forget that's an option most of the time. Against Michigan, the Gophers attempted 19 threes, which is far to many for a team shooting less than 30 percent. But it was the Gophers' attack late in the second half that brought them within 2 points of the Wolverines. If Minnesota is going to make any improvement by the end of a lost season, the Gophers will have to get realistic and understand what they are and what they definitely are not.  

Murphy on the court. Freshman Jordan Murphy has picked up at least four fouls in six of the last eight games and has displayed an uncanny knack for acquiring two quickly in the first half, putting him on the bench. Last game, he managed to stay whistle-less in the first half, but still found a way to foul out with 20 seconds left. But even when Murphy isn't fouling, he looks afraid to foul, which has taken away from his aggressiveness substantially. At the beginning of the season, it looked like Murphy would be able to win a few games for the Gophers with his sheer athleticism and will under the hoop. Now, although he's certainly still contributing, he's blended into the background. If for nothing else but next year, Murphy's got to find a way to be more effective again while keeping the fouls to a minimum. 

My prediction: Iowa 85, Minnesota 62

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."

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

  • Chicago at Wild

    2:30 pm on Ch. 11, 100.3-FM

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