The Gophers men's basketball team might be off to its best start in years, but fourth-year coach Richard Pitino can't ignore one weakness that could continue to be exploited if it's not figured out soon.
"We're not a good offensive team right now," Pitino said, and that was evident Wednesday in a 65-47 loss at Michigan State.
It's not just one game.
The No. 24 Gophers, who will try to bounce back Saturday at Penn State, rank ninth in the Big Ten in scoring offense (72.0), 12th in field-goal percentage (41.5) and 13th in three-point percentage (31.2) through five conference games.
They rank 101st nationally in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, the website of analyst Ken Pomeroy. It's a good thing the Gophers' defensive efficiency is 11th nationally.
But they can't reach their potential until their offense catches up to their defense.
"In the last game, we got frustrated and gave up on the offense and just tried to do it ourselves off the bounce," Pitino said. "When we throw it inside, we never throw it back out. We were really, really making ourselves easy to guard trying to move the defense with the dribble instead of the pass. So it was a very, very poor offensive game for us."
It's hard to believe a team that shot 51 percent in the first half in a 91-82 overtime victory at Purdue and 55 percent in the first half in a 70-66 victory at Northwestern could look as much in disarray as it did Wednesday.
Future opponents can look to the Spartans' blueprint on shutting down the Gophers.
Frustrate Nate Mason. Get Reggie Lynch into foul trouble. If Dupree McBrayer is scoring often on dribble drives and off-balance layups, don't worry. The offense is lacking flow and turned into a 1-on-1 game.
Outside of McBrayer's 5-for-10 shooting Wednesday, the Gophers shot 14-for-47 (29.7 percent). They had only six assists in the game, their fewest since just five in a loss to Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, S.D., last season.
Pitino's team isn't a good shooting group despite some hot stretches. But there are more offensive options than last year. Of his top seven scorers, four are newcomers in Amir Coffey, Akeem Springs, Lynch and Eric Curry.
"They do a good job on deflections," Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo said. "So anytime they can create offense from their defense they tend to be good, because they can get in the open court. McBrayer, [Jordan] Murphy, Coffey are all better in open space, as opposed to trying to grind it out half-court style."
Mason and Lynch are probably the Gophers' best offensive weapons in the halfcourt. Mason is the best at creating offense for himself and others. Lynch, a 6-foot-10 junior, is the team's top low-post scorer.
But Lynch had just two points on 1-for-4 shooting Wednesday before fouling out in 17 minutes. He's fouled out in four of five Big Ten games.
Since his 31-point performance at Purdue, Mason is shooting just 10-for-35 (28.6 percent) from the floor, including 2-for-11 from three-point range. He went scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting in the first half at Michigan State, which led to a 39-17 halftime deficit.
Pitino wants his players to be more patient offensively and not force the ball, even if shots aren't falling.
"I don't want to run a delay game offense," Pitino said. "That's not the point. The point is you have to move the defense first, and then drive the closeouts. We were trying to do it without any movement. Scouting comes into play. Teams are going to guard your initial action. They may switch it. What do you do when all that breaks down?"
Pitino said when driving lanes are clogged and scoring becomes difficult, his team is supposed to rely on what the Gophers call their "flow" offense. That didn't happen — and it needs to Saturday, or offensive struggles could continue.
"The ball wasn't moving side-to-side," Pitino said. "So we worked on it in practice."