By Sunday night, it was clear that the Puerto Rico Tip-Off had not gone the way Richard Pitino had hoped.
The Gophers coach sounded on edge with references to the matchup with Texas Tech and former Minnesota coach Tubby Smith – asked whether Smith said anything to him before the game, Pitino replied “nothing newsworthy,” – frustrated with the team’s fouling proclivity and somewhat baffled by the defensive struggles.
There was plenty of cause. Heading into Puerto Rico, I thought Minnesota might take only one of three and I think many reasonable people agreed. So in some ways, absolutely nothing unexpected has happened thus far. But on the other hand, the Gophers have already displayed gaping flaws in some areas and fell by 13 to Texas Tech one game after nearly giving away a win vs. a not-very-good Missouri State team.
The team has the talent to be competitive but as we’ve always known, this year’s squad is young, raw and inexperienced. Right now, that youth is showing itself in inconsistent defense, timid offense, poor rebounding effort and glaring fouls.
The question now is whether Minnesota can move past a bad long weekend and pick up some steam through the rest of this month and next – or whether a not-so-easy slate between now and New Years’ will put the Gophers on the path toward the basement.
“We’ll bounce back no problem,” Pitino said on Sunday. “We’ve played five games, we’ve got like 25 more to go. When you’re in a conference like we’re in, you’re never out of it.”
A look at the games ahead:
Friday: Nebraska Omaha – This should be the epitome of a get-back-on-track game vs. the Mavericks who just completed a four-year transition into Division I. The only problem here? Omaha has been very efficient in getting to the line, dating back to last year. And Omaha will be at least a little motivated by a homecoming of sorts with three players, including JT Gibson, Minnesota’s 2015 Mr. Basketball, coming to town. Still, the Gophers should dismiss the Mavericks easily. If not, there is trouble ahead given what other teams are on this list …
Monday: Clemson – The Tigers don’t have the top-to-bottom scoring this year to be totally scary, but their defense – ranked 43rd nationally in defensive efficiency by analyst Ken Pomeroy – will make Clemson a force to break. Six-7 junior Jaron Blossomgame is a well-rounded forward and has the potential to go off offensively.
Dec. 5: South Dakota – The Coyotes lost a lot from a year ago and shouldn’t be much of a threat, but watch out for Casey Kasperbauer shooting threes and Tre Burnette, who was in the national top-40 in defensive rebounding percentage last year.
Dec. 8: South Dakota State – As “South Dakota week” continues, the Jackrabbits will bring a different story. Scott Nagy’s team is sound defensively, quick paced, full of shooters and the overwhelming favorite to win the Summit league this year. South Dakota State has one of the better non-Power Five backcourts in star guard DeOndre Parks, a popular pick for league Player of the Year and George Marshall, and 6-9 freshman Mike Baum has been huge on the boards early, average 7.8 a game. The game could go either way, and Minnesota has the benefit of being at home, but the Jackrabbits have more than enough talent to bring the Gophers down.
Dec. 12: Oklahoma State (in Sioux Falls, S.D.) – The Cowboys aren’t expected to be major players in the Big 12, but last year they made the NCAA tournament after starting the season in a similar position. This Oklahoma State team lost three of its top three scorers, but bring back Phil Forte III, one of the league’s top guards. Offensively, Oklahoma State doesn’t turn the ball over. And freshman Juwan Evan, supposedly the Cowboys’ bet recruit since Marcus Smart, has already brought a lot to the table with rebounding, scoring and steals.
Dec. 16: Chicago State – This is the “gimme” out of the bunch – one of the worst teams in Division I with a terrible offense and no interior defense. That said, the Cougars NEARLY beat Illinois in Springfield on Monday after knocking down 11 three-pointers.
Dec. 23: Milwaukee – Minnesota will end its non-conference slate with a squad that is no pushover, especially on the boards, where the Panthers rank fourth in the nation in total rebounds. That effort is led by 6-8 senior Matt Tiby, who has the 15th best defensive rebounding rate in the nation a year ago.