No team should be defined by the first three games. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 3-0, 0-3 or in the case of the Gophers men’s basketball team coming off two straight losses.
After falling to Oklahoma and Butler away from home, Gophers coach Richard Pitino has another challenging road game Friday at Utah.
The Sooners might be the best team Minnesota faces in non-league play. The Bulldogs were the first true road game for Pitino’s relatively young squad. Things weren’t pretty, but the Gophers weren’t completely overmatched in both losses.
Can they solve some issues in time to turn things around to end this road stretch?
Below are my takeaways from the U’s first back-to-back nonconference losses since 2015-16:
Helping Daniel Oturu – Daniel Oturu has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. The Gophers talented sophomore center showed glimpses of his potential last season. Not being named to the All-Big Ten freshman team didn’t tell the tale of how productive he was in his first year (led all Big Ten freshmen in four categories). The 6-foot-10 former Cretin-Derham Hall star has taken his game to another level this year by averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in three games. It hasn’t been against poor competition and each opponent knows he’s the only true post threat. Oturu could be even more dominant and lead the Gophers to victory if his teammates help him. In Tuesday night’s 64-56 loss at Butler, the Gophers missed on several post entry opportunities for Oturu and others in the frontcourt. Oturu battled through the stomach flu all night, but he worked relentlessly to get open, especially on screen-and-roll plays. Problem is he rarely received the ball when rolling to the basket. He easily could’ve had 30-plus points on a night when the Gophers needed it. Their guards went completely cold. Helping Oturu isn’t just about getting him the ball consistently. What about production from the other frontcourt spot? Drexel transfer Alihan Demir has just six points on 2-for-8 shooting from the field [0-for-2 from three-point line] and six rebounds in the last two losses. Demir is still the most polished offensive threat at his position, but it appears he has lost some confidence. Will Pitino decide to start sophomore Jarvis Omersa over Demir on Friday? Omersa’s energy, world-class leaping ability and length could assist Oturu defensively and on the boards. But Omersa even said himself he needs to look to score. He has zero field goal attempts in the last two games after scoring eight points on 4-for-5 shooting in the opener vs. Cleveland State. Demir coming off the bench might also put less pressure on him until he gets comfortable.
No bench scoring – The Gophers have been outscored 35-4 in the last two games in bench points, including 15-0 in Tuesday night’s loss at Butler. Of the four players off the bench only freshman Tre’ Williams even attempted a shot in the game. Williams and Omersa were also the only reserves to play at least 10 minutes vs. Oklahoma and Butler. Williams has four points on 1-for-5 shooting combined in the last two games. The rest of the bench is scoreless with just one attempt. Pitino has historically leaned heavily on his starters. This season has not been any different. Williams is the only freshman getting consistent playing time. Fellow guard Bryan Greenlee, who showed promise in exhibition games, has only gotten a taste of the court. Center Sam Freeman hasn’t played in three games. Senior forward Michael Hurt made solid contributions when called upon in the first two games, but he was benched after struggling early vs. Butler. Could Demir be more productive as a sixth man? Freshman Isaiah Ihnen is cleared to play after injuring his wrist last month. The 6-9 Ihnen, a former four-star recruit, making his debut soon could also potentially create a spark offensively with his shooting ability for his size.
Die by the three – Pitino predicted that the Gophers would be a better shooting team than last season. The results haven’t proven that to be the case so far at 32.1 percent [27-for-84] through three games. That’s compared to 31.7 percent shooting in 2018-19, which was 300th nationally. They hit 13 three-pointers in the season opener vs. Cleveland State, but it’s been abysmal from beyond the arc since at 25 percent [14-for-55] in losses to Butler and Oklahoma. Everyone but Gabe Kalscheur had trouble making threes consistently last season. But Kalscheur is having a sophomore slump early, dropping from 41 percent to 31.8 percent [7-for-22 shooting from three compared to his freshman year. He’ll bounce back soon. But Minnesota’s entire starting backcourt of Payton Willis, Marcus Carr and Kalscheur combined for just 4-for-19 shooting from three Tuesday at Butler. They can’t afford to all misfire at the same time, but attacking the basket would help get easier shots. A good sign defensively, the Gophers are holding opponents to just 25 percent [12-for-48] from three-point range in three games, which ranks third best in the Big Ten.
Getting more offense from defense – Pitino’s teams might continue to have trouble scoring in the halfcourt if they can’t shoot from the outside. But how do they generate more offense? Finding different ways for Oturu to get the ball is one way. But scoring off their defense is another. In the last two games, the Gophers have seven combined for just seven steals. The bigger difference is being outscored 39-11 in points off turnovers, including 25-2 against Butler after committing 18 turnovers. The lack of length on the perimeter has kept Minnesota from picking up more steals. They don’t have 6-8 Amir Coffey and 6-5 Dupree McBrayer [both with 6-10 wingspans] getting into passing lanes. Even Jordan Murphy was long [7-foot wingspan] for an undersized power forward. How do the Gophers get longer? Well, Ihnen has a 7-4 wingspan, so there’s another reason to get him comfortable in practice and ready to play. Oturu could develop into a shot-blocking presence like the Gophers used to have with Reggie Lynch. Kalscheur is still one of the better on-ball defenders around. This team has shown it can really play well defensively for stretches the last two games, including holding Oklahoma to 25 percent shooting in the first half Saturday. Butler wasn't a juggernaut offensively, but it struggled to score Tuesday beyond Kamar Baldwin's 27 points. If Pitino is looking for an identity for this team, it probably will be on the defensive side if they can create more deflections.