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Gophers look to regain defensive 'identity' vs. Michigan

In today's Star Tribune: my story on the Gophers' two transfers -- Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald -- building their game and their friendship as they sit out.

For two weeks, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team enjoyed what felt like a rumble of momentum. The Gophers were still losing, yes, but after getting slammed by a total of 50 points in two games, they’d managed to keep it within seven for five straight contests.

Then came Northwestern. The Wildcats boxed Minnesota into a corner for the second time this season on Thursday, walloping the Gophers to the tune of 82-58.

Momentum, lost.

It’s been six days since that game, with Minnesota forced into a bye week right after the massacre before facing Michigan at Williams Arena tonight (8 p.m. CT; BTN).

“It feels like a long break,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “It always stinks when you don’t play well and you’ve got to let that simmer and sit for a while.”

Both Pitino and players said in Tuesday news conferences that they felt offensively Northwestern and its matchup zone was just a bad matchup for them this year (despite that the Gophers often play and practice matchup zone themselves). But as ugly and rushed as Minnesota’s offense was in that lop-sided fight, the bigger problem might have been the defense. After all, the Gophers’ offense has been mostly dreadful all year, but scrappy defense has at times kept them in the ring.

They held the league’s top three three-point percentage teams – Indiana (.422), Michigan State (.422) and Michigan (.403) to 32 percent or worse in four games, and an average of 26.4 percent. The highlight was a Jan. 30 game at Indiana, when the Hoosiers managed just 2 of 18 attempts. The Gophers also held all five opponents from Jan. 16 to Jan. 30 below 46 percent from the field after allowing teams to shoot 50.8 percent or better in five of the previous six games.

Not so at Northwestern, where the Wildcats sank 12 of 27 threes (44.4 percent) and shot 53.7 percent from the field overall.

“We were starting to get an identity,” Pitino said. “We lost that a little bit.”

The Gophers fell behind 13-2 less than four minutes in, and after pulling within six twice, sank to a 14-point deficit by halftime.

Panic, senior Joey King believes, set in then.

“It was a little bit of a lack of maturity,” he said. “We were down by 15 at the half and just kind of struggled to get our minds right …but it doesn’t take away from the fact that in some of these other matchups we’ve been able to step up to the challenge and play really well.”

Boosting the Gophers’ damaged egos is the fact that Minnesota's defense played Michigan tough the last time around, the second game into what looked like some semblance of forward movement. Minnesota used a hot second half in that contest – outshooting Michigan 46.9 to 31 percent and winning the boards 21 to 18 – to keep it competitive at the end before falling 74-69, the Gophers eighth straight loss in the series.

The Wolverines haven’t been playing their best brand of basketball as of late either, especially in back-to-back home losses to Indiana and Michigan State by a total of 29 points. But Michigan could cue a resurgence if Caris LeVert rejoins the pack after missing ten games with what the team is calling a lower leg injury. Multiple reports emerged on Tuesday that LeVert has been cleared to play, and could be a game-time decision.

Regardless, the Gophers know rediscovering some defensive life would be the key to the incredibly elusive victory.

“We played Michigan tough at their place and we played Indiana tough,” King said. “Come back here. Michigan at home, it’s no different. We’re going to chase them off the three I’m sure and do everything we can to slap down on their drives and still close out to shooters.”

Gilbert to return to Gophers' rotation Wednesday

University of Minnesota freshman Ahmad Gilbert will be available for tomorrow's home game against Michigan, coach Richard Pitino said on Tuesday evening, after sitting out the last five games.

Gilbert dislocated a finger on his left hand in the Gophers game against Indiana on Jan. 16 and had surgery on the digit the following day. Pitino said Gilbert practiced without contact on Sunday and was "full go" both yesterday and today.

The wing is averaging 2.4 points and 0.9 rebounds in 8.1 minutes a game on the season, but prior to his injury, the wing had started to noticeably improve on the court, starting against Indiana for the second game.

Another bonus of Gilbert's return? He's one of the only natural shooters -- albeit a raw one -- on the team outside of senior Joey King. Shooting has been a major deficit for Minnesota this season. The Gophers are shooting 28.4 percent from beyond the arc in conference play, second worst in the league.

"He had to get quicker," Pitino said of Gilbert. "I think the speed of the game got to him a little bit, but I thought he was trending the right way and then he got hurt."

Pitino on Louisville.

Last week, the news came out of Louisville that Rick Pitino's Cardinals were self-imposing a postseason ban following undisclosed information that came to light during the university's in-house investigation. Much has been made about how the unexpected, late-year punishment affects Damion Lee and Trey Lewish, two graduate transfers who clearly had nothing to do with any of the wrongdoing, but who came to the program in large part because of the strong chance of getting to the NCAA tournament.

Richard Pitino weighed in on the reality facing his father's program:

"It's a difficult situation," he said. "To kind of be thrown in that a couple of days ago is hard and I feel bad for those guys, Damion and Trey because they're really good kids. I don't know them really well, I've met them a couple times and they seem like great kids. 

"But whoever said it was going to be fair? Everybody sits around and talks about 'it's not fair, this and that.' Well life's not fair. And that's OK. That's part of the deal. So I feel bad for those guys but I know they'll make the best of however many weeks they have left and I think they showed that. It was a great game last night, they were playing with great passion, pride. There is still a lot to play for. Those guys have the potential to play in the NBA ...I think they're still in the hunt for the ACC title. So there is still a lot to play for. It stinks for those guys, I feel for them, but there's no perfect fix to any of these things."

Mason bothered, but better.

Pitino also noted that Nate Mason was bothered by a minor heel injury in the Gophers' 82-58 loss at Northwestern. 

The point guard, who was averaging 20 points and 7.3 assists in the previous four games, managed just eight points and two assists against the Wildcats. Pitino said Mason first complained about the issue -- which he called a bruise -- a week ago, but didn't bring it up on Thursday.

"I asked him after the game, I said 'What was wrong with you?'" Pitino said. "He said my heel hurts. I said Nate, 'You've got to tell us if you're hurt.' He made a good point, he said 'What am I going to tell a coach during a game that I'm hurt?' I get it but if he's not 100 percent, he's got to let us know and we've got to get him out.

"But I don't think it was anything serious, he's better now, he seems fine."

Maroon Out.

Wednesday's game vs. Michigan (8 p.m. Big Ten Network) is being promoted as a "maroon out." Gophers fans are encouraged to wear all maroon and Pitino is rumored to be wearing a maroon jacket.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Toronto at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Michigan at Gophers men's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Nebraska at Gophers women's basketball

    7 pm on 1500-AM

  • Washington at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers men's hockey at Ohio State

    5:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Minnesota Duluth

    7:07 pm

  • Boston at Wild

    1 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Minnesota Duluth

    4:07 pm

  • Gophers men's hockey at Ohio State

    6 pm on 1500-AM

  • 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

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