A relatively soft early nonconference schedule for the Gophers gave Richard Pitino's newcomers a chance to ease into life with a new basketball team and all the challenges of getting comfortable during the pandemic.
Any issues they had adjusting earlier this season were magnified once the competition ratcheted up at the start of Big Ten play.
The Gophers (6-1) have shown potential with their newcomers adding talent to the roster. But their lack of experience playing together against bigger and better opponents was exposed in Tuesday's 92-65 Big Ten-opening loss at No. 13 Illinois.
Transfers Liam Robbins, Both Gach and Brandon Johnson and freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. combined to average nearly 40 points entering Tuesday. They had just 21 points against Illinois on 6-for-32 shooting from the field and 7-for-15 from the foul line. A rough Big Ten debut, indeed.
"The hard part is you never know what you're going to get from the newcomers," Pitino had said. "Especially when you don't have a summer with them. You're bringing in six new guys and those transfers, all three were going to [need to be] impact guys. You just don't know."
Pitino banked on the transfer market helping the Gophers stay old instead of relying on just freshmen. But no experience could prepare Gach, Robbins and Johnson for playing their first Big Ten game.
Robbins, one of the best shot blockers in the country last year at Drake, probably had nightmares of Illinois' 7-foot, 285-pound Kofi Cockburn's rim-rattling dunks. Cockburn finished with a career-high 33 points, to go with 13 rebounds.
"He's never gone against a guy like Kofi in his life," Pitino said. "He's transferring up from the Missouri Valley. I don't think they have guys his size at that level."
Robbins, who had 27 points last week vs. Missouri-Kansas City, finished with 10 points and two rebounds against Illinois in 16 minutes. The Gophers couldn't put pressure on Cockburn because Robbins sat too long with two early fouls in the first few minutes.
It won't get any easier for Robbins and the U's frontcourt in the next Big Ten game on Christmas Day against Iowa's Luka Garza, the nation's leading scorer and reigning conference player of the year.
"We're playing the best league in college basketball," junior Marcus Carr said. "We're going to prepare like we always do and be up for the challenge."
Gach scored in double figures in each of his first six games. The Utah transfer and Austin native has been one of Pitino's best all-around players, but he was a non-factor Tuesday. Gach appeared out of sorts when he couldn't finish against Illinois' physical defense that limited him to just one point on 0-for-9 shooting in 26 minutes.
It was the first time Gach had zero field goals in a game since a couple of games when he played sparingly off the bench as a freshman at Utah in 2018-19.
"It just seemed like it snowballed," Pitino said. "Missed a couple layups at the basket. It's just one of those nights for him. You know, he's a terrific player. I have no doubt he'll bounce back."
Johnson returned from an ankle injury to have eight points on 6-for-7 free-throw shooting, eight rebounds and two blocks. But he had an off shooting night from the field, going 1-for-8. Mashburn, who had 10 points off the bench in an overtime win against Boston College last week, finished with just two points Tuesday on 1-for-7 shooting.
The Gophers are confident their newcomers can play better, and they'll definitely need it as the schedule only gets tougher, including Sunday's game against Atlantic 10 power St. Louis.
"I think we've done a good job putting everybody into the system," junior Gabe Kalscheur said. "Our transfers help us a lot, [Mashburn] helps us a lot. We have a lot of good players who want to get better and help us win. That's good for our team."