Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo loves to play tougher nonconference schedules to challenge his teams and see what they’re made of before Big Ten play. The Spartans typically get better at the end of the season, because they learn some tough lessons early on.
Sunday’s 79-59 thrashing at Ohio State was the second loss in the last three games for the Gophers, who don’t get it any easier returning home to play Wednesday against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers showed in last year’s win against Minnesota they were the most physical team they faced to that point – and the Buckeyes did the same Sunday.
“That’s a big physical team and we didn’t handle it well,” Pitino said. “I’m not complaining about the refs. They do a really good job at the little things of just being physical, whether it’s a screen, a block out or offensive rebound.”
Pitino said Sunday he preferred the Big Ten still open in late December and early January. That ship has sailed, though, with a 20-game conference schedule. Now teams have their weaknesses exposed in conference much earlier.
The sooner you know those weaknesses the better (it didn’t hit the Gophers two seasons ago until a five-game losing streak in January). Playing a soft schedule in November and December won’t get you prepared for conference play enough or even help the resume much for March.
Here are my takeaways after the Ohio State loss, but no positives like Pitino said. So I stole some good things from Friday's win against Oklahoma State since the games were only a couple days apart (haha):
LENGTH INSIDE – After Reggie Lynch’s suspension last season in January, the Gophers became a much different team defensively. They no longer had a consistent rim protector. Points in the paint came easy for almost any opponent. There’s still nobody like Lynch in the program this season, but Daniel Oturu and Matz Stockman are long (7-foot-2 and 7-6 wingspans, respectively) and average 2.0 and 1.1 blocks per game. Oturu had three blocks in Sunday’s loss at Ohio State. Stockman had three blocks Friday. The problem is the rest of the team doesn’t contribute in that category, so the Gophers are far from as formidable at blocking shots as they were making the NCAA tournament in 2017. That team set a school and Big Ten record with 227 swats.
CLUTCH PLAYS – You can’t make clutch plays if you’re not in the game in the end. The Gophers were blown out Sunday against the Buckeyes, but they had to pull out a tight one in an 83-76 win Friday against Oklahoma State at U.S. Bank Stadium. Sure, Pitino would prefer if his team kept that 18-point second-half lead against the Cowboys. When that margin shrunk to a three-point game late, the Gophers defended, rebounded and made shots and free throws to win. Kalscheur hit some jumpers. Coffey and Murphy hit free throws. The Gophers are 4-0 this season when the game is decided by single digits, which could serve them well with close games in Big Ten play. You know they're coming.
STOCKMAN AND WASHINGTON – Everyone struggled against the Buckeyes, so there’s no reason to point out that Isaiah Washington and Matz Stockman didn't make an impact Sunday. Instead, let us focus on what we saw positive from them against Oklahoma State. Stockman only had two points, but it was on a buzzer-beating jumper that helped Minnesota have momentum going into halftime Friday. The 7-foot senior also had three blocks and three assists in 17 minutes off the bench. Washington finally showed what he saw from him at the end of last season with 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting, to go with four assists. Whatever happened to get Washington going in that game I'm sure Pitino wishes he got put in a bottle and use that to motivate him the rest of the year. They will need both of these guys for bench support moving forward.
FRESHMEN ARE FRESHMEN: Unless you have One-and-Done type players, it’s hard to lean too heavily on freshmen in college basketball. Yeah, Duke and Kentucky might get away with it because of how elite their young guys are. Even that formula isn’t usually ideal for success (i.e. Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Trae Young, etc.). Very talented freshmen in a supporting role like Amir Coffey and Eric Curry (both four-star recruits) can be a big lift, though. Coffey and Curry were important pieces to an NCAA tourney team in 2017. But Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy were the All-Big Ten players on that squad, with Reggie Lynch winning defensive player of the year. So part of what makes the Gophers so vulnerable this season is that Kalscheur and Oturu are starters and have to be really good, if not great each game for their team to win. They don’t have to dominate, but at least be major factors both offensively and defensively. That’s a lot of pressure on them right now, especially since opponents have already game planned how to limit their impact. Kalscheur (who made 23 three-pointers and averaged 13.7 points in his first seven games) won’t get many open looks from beyond the arc against Big Ten opponents. The Gophers will have to come up with even more creative ways to free him, and he’ll need to get to the basket and the foul line to continue to be a consistent offensive threat. Big Ten opponents are not going to allow Oturu to get deep post touches by walling him up and being physical. Oturu’s talented but doesn’t have a go-to post move yet (common for most young post players). So they will just try to push him off the block and force him to make a tougher shot over the defense. Kalscheur is a smart player and will likely try to make adjustments in his game. Senior center Matz Stockman on Oturu’s development said “the more he plays Big Ten games and feels the physicality of it, he’ll get used to it, more comfortable and adapt to it.”
OUTSIDE SHOOTING – Not since 1992 had an Ohio State opponent failed to make a three-pointer in a game like the Gophers, who went 0-for-13 from long distance in Sunday’s loss. The last Buckeyes opponent to go 0-fer was Michigan’s Fab Five, which still went on to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis that year. Chris Webber dominating the paint might’ve had something to do with it. Murphy’s a beast inside, but the Gophers can’t win too many games if they have no three-point shooting. Opponents have dared the Gophers to shoot over a zone – and other than Kalscheur it worked to stifle them. Kalscheur ranks second in the Big Ten with 53.5 three-point shooting percentage (23-for-43), but the rest of the Gophers are 25.2 percent (27-for-107) from deep. Minnesota wasn’t a great three-point shooting team two seasons ago (34.5 percent), but it still made the Big Dance. Pitino just can’t be this bad in that category. Maybe grad transfer Brock Stull, one of the best shooters in the Horizon League, can help like fellow Milwaukee guard Akeem Springs did in 2017.
NO DEFENSIVE IDENTITY – The Gophers aren’t much of a force defensively. That was their identity when playing at their best under Pitino. It hasn’t been the case this season ranking near the bottom in almost every defensive category among Big Ten teams. The most alarming areas are the lack of steals and overall deflections. They aren’t blocking shots enough (4.0 blocks per game this year compared to 6.8 in 2016-17). Minnesota ranks last in the conference with just 4.0 steals per game, which would be the fewest in program history if the season ended today. How do they become more disruptive defensively? That might be one of the biggest questions Pitino and his coaching staff are asking themselves as they prepare for Wednesday’s game against Nebraska.