As Keita Bates-Diop's free throw bounced off the rim Wednesday, Gophers center Bakary Konate reached up and snatched it — a rebound that led to a Nate Mason layup, cutting Ohio State's lead to one.
But that moment, coming with 13 minutes to go in a game the Gophers ultimately lost 78-63, was one of the few recent bright spots from their centers.
As the down-and-out Gophers head into their toughest test yet this season — top-ranked Michigan State comes to Williams Arena on Saturday for their Big Ten home opener — their poor play in the post takes a large share of the blame for their five losses over the past six games.
On both ends of the court, the Gophers are getting bullied in the paint. Offensively, they are making only 45.2 percent of their two-point attempts, which ranks 266th nationally. Ohio State posted 42 points in the paint to the Gophers' 26, and they were outscored in the paint by more than nine points per game in those five December losses.
Sophomore centers Konate and Diedhiou combined for only two points and two rebounds against the Buckeyes.
"They're young," senior Carlos Morris said. "It takes time. Some guys develop and blossom different than other guys. They've just got to get ready, man. They've got to step up."
Konate and Diedhiou were pegged as raw big men with high potential when coach Richard Pitino's staff recruited the pair. Both had previously played in Africa and Europe before arriving in the Twin Cities last summer. They played spot minutes as freshmen but were forced into larger roles this year with Konate starting and Diedhiou backing him up after Mo Walker and Elliott Eliason graduated.
Their transition to American basketball has come firmly in the spotlight, a reality that will continue when the Spartans come to town with three centers — including one of the conference's most lauded freshmen, Deyonta Davis — in tow.
There have been a few highlights, especially earlier in the season. Diedhiou, in a handful of nonconference games, looked improved and serviceable defensively. Konate posted a double-double and added three blocks in a victory over Nebraska Omaha on Nov. 27, and he has recorded double-digit rebounds in three other games and at least three blocks in three more.
But more often than not, the struggles are the story. Konate is not yet back in shape after missing a month because of a foot injury before the season. He has grabbed three or fewer rebounds eight times and, like Diedhiou, often has been mired by foul trouble. On offense, both players are missing more than making. After a loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Dec. 23, Pitino said players didn't trust Konate enough to throw the ball into the post, even when he had his man sealed off from the basket.
As the team slumped out of Value City Arena on Wednesday, all of these concerns began to sound more like pleas.
"That's really all we're asking of them, just rebounds and defense," senior forward Joey King said, echoing the words of Pitino. "We're going to have to get those guys in the gym more, just practice, practice, practice, getting their hands right so they can pull down some of those tough rebounds in traffic."
Their work will be cut out for them against Michigan State, one of the nation's top rebounding and defensive teams. Michigan State ranks third in the nation in rebounding differential (plus-13.9) and 14th in scoring defense (61.4 ppg). In addition, Davis is averaging 2.1 blocks per game.
Pitino might decide that abandoning a traditional frontcourt is the best way to combat those disadvantages. He has used a small lineup often lately, citing ineffectiveness at the center spot. Wednesday, he hinted going that route more often could be coming.
"We've got to adjust," he said. "I've got to be ready, if we've got to play small, to do it. We're in a couple different binds, and we've just got to figure it out."