The Barn felt like it had a soul again. Maybe not exactly like the old days when the building shook and noise echoed, creating romanticism between a fanbase, an arena and a basketball team.
But Williams Arena was a fun place to be Saturday, and that’s a start for a program that has become largely irrelevant in our collective thoughts.
The Gophers pushed Michigan State, the nation’s No. 1 team, to the wire before falling short in a 69-61 loss.
No criticism here for the way the Gophers competed. They played with emotion and energy and toughness.
They looked like a team worth watching, which counts as a baby step considering their zombie routine in the nonconference, non-interesting portion of their schedule.
But before we proceed further, let’s not fall into the trap of celebrating a moral victory. The Spartans played without their best player and National Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, sidelined after recent knee surgery.
Michigan State with Valentine is not the same team as Michigan State without him. Not even close.
The Spartans that took the floor Saturday were entirely beatable. Good teams pounce on those opportunities at an upset.
The Gophers are not a good team, not yet, especially if they don’t receive more production from their senior tandem, Joey King and Carlos Morris.
King shot 1-for-6 from the floor and finished with seven points. He went 1-for-8 and scored seven points in a loss to Ohio State in the conference opener.
King didn’t make his only shot Saturday until a three-pointer with 7 minutes, 9 seconds left in the game.
Morris went only 2-for-8 for seven points.
Two seniors combining for 3-of-14 shooting is not nearly enough for this team, which has obvious deficiencies, particularly in the post.
“I’m the type of guy that always feels like I could give more,” King said. “I was a little emotional after the game, just frustration. But there’s always another day.”
That’s a message the entire team must take from this latest loss. Competing hard against Michigan State at home isn’t difficult. Diving for loose balls and giving extra effort on defense against the nation’s top-ranked team shouldn’t require extra motivation.
Every team can throw one good punch in a supercharged atmosphere. Quality teams throw it consistently.
Will the Gophers respond with similar urgency at Penn State on Tuesday? And every other game against teams not named Michigan State?
“We’ve got to realize that you’ve got to bring it every single game, regardless of the environment,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I understand that fans are frustrated with us. But we’re young. I hope they can stick us.”
Yes, they’re young, but that doesn’t excuse some of their losses in nonconference play. A lot of college basketball teams are young.
This team probably won’t win many Big Ten games because it has too many flaws and holes in the roster. The Gophers don’t shoot particularly well, they are undermanned in the post and they have too many defensive lapses.
Other than that …
Their lack of viable interior play hurt them against the taller Spartans.
King is not a true post player. Bakary Konate had a few nice moments but is still mostly raw. Gaston Diedhiou is overmatched and offers nothing.
Freshman Jordan Murphy has emerged as their go-to guy in the post and looks like a future star. He is explosive and athletic and fearless. He needs more help, though.
The guess here is that fans will show patience as long as the Gophers earn that patience. Most reasonable observers understood that this basically became a reset season with the roster makeover.
Some losses are more understandable or forgivable than others.
The one Saturday felt like a progress because the Gophers did many things well, mostly with how hard they competed.
They gave Williams Arena reason to be engaged. The Barn wasn’t entirely full but became full-throated for long stretches. The sleepy old building woke up for once.
The Gophers needed more from King and Morris, but their effort was something to build on. How they respond will tell us a lot about Pitino’s team.