As the minutes dragged by, the frustration became obvious.
It was only the first half, but already the game was slipping away. A solid start had given way to defensive struggles, which gave way to panic.
With the Gophers’ fouls piling up against Louisville (they had 32 overall), the offense began to unravel as well. Players launched passes into the temporary stands set up inside the airplane hangar in Puerto Rico.
The shot selection (the Gophers shot 34.5 percent in the first half) was questionable at times. Body language eroded. At the free-throw line, the mental rut was visible in the form of balls clanking off the rim. The Gophers missed 13 of their 33 foul shots.
The national TV audience watching didn’t have to draw conclusions at the end of the 81-68 pummeling. The message was clear: The Gophers aren’t there yet.
“We had so many opportunities throughout the course of the game to hit a big shot,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We missed it — and that happens. But then we fouled. And the fouling, it just gave us no chance.”
Here’s the good news for the Gophers: They won’t have to languish from the beatdown too long. Immediately ahead lies a rare stretch of three home game in five days, a workweek full of opportunities to address what went wrong.
They start the every-other-night stretch with their home opener against Western Kentucky at Williams Arena on Tuesday night, Division II Franklin Pierce on Thursday (both teams are part of the Preseason NIT opening rounds) and Maryland-Baltimore County on Saturday.
“It’s going to be pretty challenging,” senior center Mo Walker said. “But in the long run it’s going to prepare us for what we have planned — being in the NCAA tournament, off of one-day preps all the time. We’re going to have to really focus in on the scouting reports and pick up on the tendencies of these teams that we’re playing against. It’s going to be quick turnarounds.”
Pitino knows as well as anyone that Western Kentucky is no pushover. His 2012-13 Florida International team lost to the Hilltoppers twice in three games that year, including a one-possession conference championship game that prevented the Panthers from advancing to the NCAA tournament.
Sunday night, Pitino re-watched that near-miss and found himself grimacing on his couch. “Why are you watching that?” asked his wife, Jill.
It served as a reminder for Pitino that he doesn’t want to be in the same situation again.
“We squandered an opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament,” he said of that team. “We’ve been close — I’ve been close — the past two years. But I’m sick of getting close.”
Friday night in Puerto Rico, the Gophers were pitted against a Hall of Fame coach — Richard’s father, Rick Pitino — and a top-10 team. The Gophers lost by 13 — a margin that could have been wider considering they weren’t competitive after the 12-minute mark in the first half.
DeAndre Mathieu sat with a pair of fouls just more than midway through the first half, leaving the Gophers to attack Louisville’s stifling defense without their best press-breaking guard.
“[Mathieu] having to sit was a major problem [for the Gophers] because now our press took over,” Rick Pitino said. “If he’s in the game, our press is not as effective.”
A team that is consistently shorthanded because of foul trouble and struggles to make its freebies at the line will have a tough time winning many games. That’s what this week is for, to work on early signs of trouble.
Richard Pitino has warned that this group hasn’t fully developed the maturity necessary to play at an elite level, and Friday night those concerns were evident. Four talented newcomers figure to be a big part of the team, but three of them looked far from ready against Louisville. Bakary Konate, Josh Martin and Carlos Morris all made a slew of questionable decisions, while the fourth, Nate Mason, went 6-for-10 from the free-throw line. All four have shown early potential to be contributors, and the experience critical to their growth should come this week.
“We’ve been working in practice, and some of what we’ve been doing in practice hasn’t translated to the games,” Walker said. “People overlook us, and we had an opportunity to make a name for ourselves against this Louisville team and I don’t think we put out what we wanted people to see. I don’t think we produced like we wanted to.”