SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Finally, the Gophers were on the same page. The players, after extended stretches when the lack of defensive communication made the lane an assembly line for South Dakota State, were suddenly chirping up and echoing each other.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the change in communication came only in the locker room after an 84-70 defeat by the Jackrabbits on Tuesday, Minnesota’s second consecutive loss. The chatter offered up one common theme.
“We have to talk,” freshman Kevin Dorsey said. “[Coach Richard Pitino] has been warning us about having bad practices and not communicating and not taking things seriously. It’s caught up to us in the last two games.”
The Gophers have a silence problem, and it’s manifesting itself loudly in their defense. Minnesota ranks 257th among Division I scoring defenses, allowing 75.7 points per game. They are worst in the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency — points allowed per 100 possessions — and it isn’t close. The Gophers rank 229th — 104 points per 100 possessions — and Rutgers, second-worst, is ranked 157th.
Pitino has harped about communication constantly, and told players after Tuesday’s game that he would make them run if they didn’t talk in practice. “I sound like a broken record,” he said. Senior Joey King said throughout the game vs. SDSU, he too wondered why none of his teammates were speaking up. Head bowed in the locker room, he heaped the blame on himself.
“I just couldn’t figure it out,” he said. “Every mistake seemed to compile on top of the other.
“As the oldest, as the leader, I’m going to take the blame for that. I’m not setting a good enough example.”
King is one of the more talkative players on the court, and this year he has taken visible steps to be more of a vocal leader, pulling underclassman over for a few words, here and there. But as a whole, the Gophers are largely quiet on the court.
Often, the Gophers have given up big runs when their defense has struggled. Opponents have thrived in transition, charging at the basket or pulling up for jump shots while Minnesota players glance around, unsure of who they’re guarding or where they should be. Players have helped on defense too much, turning the perimeter into an unobstructed launching pad for opponent three-pointers; and they’ve helped too little, creating too much opportunity in the post. Individual play has been a factor, with Gophers reacting to plays independently rather than in a cohesive system.
Simply put: Their defense has been a bit of a mess.
“It sounds like an easy thing, but it’s really not,” sophomore Nate Mason said. “We just have to sacrifice everything so we communicate to each other.”
Pitino said that the youth and patchwork nature of the team — with many of the lineups still relatively new — has contributed, but there will be clear messages sent. The coach said on Friday that he was looking into playing freshman Dupree McBrayer more — perhaps even starting the 6-4 guard — in part because of his defensive length, effort and, yes, communication.
“You’ve got to call the ball,” Pitino said. “I think it’s just keep harping on it, getting them comfortable talking … getting them more comfortable with each other, talking it out.”