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Rayno: Gophers have been owned by Northwestern this season

Read Blake Schuster's special to the Star Tribune on the Gophers' 82-58 loss at Northwestern, here.

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino and Co. and the down-and-out Gophers dropped their 12th straight game on Thursday in dramatic fashion, sustaining an uglier-than-most 82-58 loss at Northwestern.

But what makes the defeat most mind-boggling is the the fact that we've seen it once already this season.

Less than a month ago, the Gophers fell 77-52 at home against the Wildcats. They looked incapable then of stopping the three or mustering much offense of their own.

But one day after Pitino declared that he did a “horrible job” with the game plan for Northwestern on that bewildering January afternoon, the Gophers looked even less prepared this time, in Evanston.

It was tough to tell which was more repugnant – Minnesota’s spastic, disjointed offense or its disconnected, often absent defense. The Gophers managed just 33.3 percent of their shots, worse than the 39.1 percent they managed against Northwestern at home, and made just four of 18 three-pointers, one short of their for 5-for-18 perforamance the first time around.

On the other end, the Wildcats, who came in with the league’s worst field goal percentage in Big Ten play (39.8 percent), had their way in the paint and on the perimeter. Northwestern drilled 12 three-pointers, one more than it managed in Take 1, and converted 53.7 percent of their shots, which would be a Big Ten best if not for the blistering 56 percent the Wildcats sank from the field in Minneapolis. 

It was enough to make us wonder if the postgame handshake was, uh, a little tighter than usual.

Pitino has bonded with Northwestern coach Chris Collins since joining the Big Ten, and it’s understandable. Not only is Collins a) in a similar position as a third-year coach having taken over a historically struggling program and b) son of a famous coach, but – at least from the media’s perspective – Collins is bright and very likable.

But now, Collins’ Wildcats have gone 4-1 against Minnesota since Pitino took the helm and have totally and completely abused the Gophers in the last two, sweeping them for the first time since 2006 by a stunning total of 49 points.

Beyond the stats, the second loss -- although by one point fewer -- felt worse because the lightning had struck once already and the Gophers were still doing laps in the swimming pool.

Right now, Northwestern owns the Gophers in a way that no other Big Ten team has. It shouldn’t be that way, because the Wildcats, on a five-game losing streak before catching woeful Minnesota on Thursday, aren’t 49 points better than the Gophers. But in two games this year, Northwestern has played with great energy and enthusiasm while Minnesota appeared eager to get off the court.

For the last five games, the Gophers looked much improved. Each of those losses came by seven points or fewer. Minnesota had chances, and it was easy to believe its first win was just around the corner. Thursday, that sentiment couldn’t have seemed farther from the truth. As Pitino said after the game, the team “took a step back” against a team for whom the Gophers and the coaches have had absoltutely no answer.

Gophers could use three-guard attack at Northwestern tonight

With one senior absent and the other a no-show in the box score, the final stretch of the Gophers’ 74-68 near miss at Indiana on Saturday played out like an ode to the future, one Minnesota hopes will be brighter than the current landslide.

An offense that often gets stagnant and relies far too heavily on three-pointers suddenly was on the attack, getting out in transition and taking the ball to the hoop forcefully and effectively.

The spark? The Gophers’ tiniest backcourt – 6-foot Kevin Dorsey, 6-2 Nate Mason and 6-4 Dupree McBrayer. It also happens to be Minnesota’s fastest look, and in Bloomington that combination worked.

Mason and Dorsey took turns whipping to the rim for scores and their speed, helped by McBrayer’s added push, kept Indiana on edge and seemed to baffle senior Hoosiers guard Yogi Ferrell at times. Minnesota pulled within one after a layup from Mason and then took the one-point lead after McBrayer swiped the ball from Troy Williams on the ensuing possession and raced down the court for a dunk. Mason and Dorsey put up 21 points apiece and McBrayer added eight and five assists. Indiana would get the stops it needed down the stretch to halt that momentum, but the competitive loss provided a peek at what the Gophers could look like down the road with those guards rooting the lineup.

“I thought we were really getting downhill,” coach Richard Pitino said afterward. “With the speed of Dupree, Kevin and Nate – that’s a tough cover.”

To some extent, the lineup was forced. While Joey King went scoreless, fellow senior Carlos Morris didn’t make the trip to Indiana due to the funeral of a family friend in his home state, Florida. That left eight scholarship players in the rotation including backup center Gaston Diedhiou, who is averaging just 5.6 minutes a game. At the end of the game, Pitino said he thought Mason was tired, and he commented that he felt he played several guys too many minutes.

“That was a tough game to coach, last game, from a substitution standpoint,” Pitino said. “I mean, we went in there with eight scholarship players. I felt like we were on probation …Once we get full strength, I like our team. “

Morris is back with the team on Thursday in the greater Chicago area, but Pitino said he’s keeping all options open against Northwestern, including more of the quick, undersized trio against the Wildcats’ talented guards, pointing out that such a configuration gives Minnesota more options off ball screens. But he’s concerned about the same lineup competing defensively and on the boards because of its lack of length and size.

“It’s a nice added dimension,” Pitino said of the versatility. “If Kevin is playing like that, we can do it, but he’s a bit of a wildcard. He can come in there and not be as solid as he’s always been.”

Dorsey, meanwhile, sounded as confident as ever.

“People fear our speed,” he said. “The last game was probably the best fast-break game we’ve had. Me and Nate were getting out in transition and we were pretty much getting any baskets that we wanted.

“I think us playing small is just about will, to be able to rebound and everything like that. The biggest thing is it’s just up to us.”

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