Richard Pitino stared in frustration at his players as they walked into the huddle during a second-half timeout Saturday at Michigan State. The Gophers coach scribbled something on a small whiteboard. Players nodded their heads in understanding of what he wanted them to execute and that he wanted them to compete harder.
Instead, the Gophers followed by turning the ball over and making miscues on defense. The Spartans pounced on their wounded opponent, extending their lead to 28.
“We did not respond to their physicality,” Pitino said of his team’s 24-point loss. “I think the guys saw on the film and know that if you want to win in this league, you’ve got to embrace the physicality of this league.”
It isn’t just a lack of being physical that has plagued the Gophers in road games. Poor shooting, undisciplined defense and an absence of mental and physical toughness to finish games has contributed to a 1-6 road record, including four consecutive road losses.
The Gophers (16-8, 6-7 Big Ten), who are on a three-game losing streak, enter Wednesday’s game at Nebraska (13-11, 3-10) trying to win on the road for the first time since their Jan. 3 upset at Wisconsin.
Protecting their home court with the exception of a couple of hiccups has kept Pitino’s team afloat so far, but any realistic NCAA tournament at-large hopes will sink without winning more on the road. The Gophers’ 2017 NCAA tournament team won five Big Ten road games. This season, four of their final seven regular-season games are on the road.
“When you have your home fan base, they’re like a sixth man,” senior captain Dupree McBrayer said. “It’s a big factor. The team is all we got [on the road], so we have to pull through together. Everybody has to stay with each other.”
In six road losses this season, the Gophers’ average margin of defeat is 15 points, and three of those losses were by at least 20. They haven’t shot well: 38.4 percent from the floor in those six losses, including 19.6 percent from three-point range. They haven’t hit the boards well: outrebounded in five of seven road games. And they have turned it over too much: averaging 13.1 turnovers per road game.
Their top players have struggled with their shot away from home. Leading scorer Amir Coffey’s points per game and shooting percentage drop from 19.6 and 48.6 in Big Ten home games to 14.0 and 40.5 in road games. Saturday at Michigan State, Coffey scored a season-low four points on 2-for-6 shooting.
Jordan Murphy is averaging only 9.9 points on 44.9 percent shooting in road games. Fellow starters McBrayer (7.6 points per game and 32.7 percent) and Gabe Kalscheur (7.9 points and 40.4 percent) struggle just as much. In fact, Coffey is the only regular starter who is averaging double figures on the road. Daniel Oturu, who started Saturday in place of injured Eric Curry, is averaging 10.3 points and is the only main rotation player shooting better than 50 percent (52.5) on the road.
Other than Oturu, there’s not much of a spark coming off the Gophers bench. Backup point guard Isaiah Washington is averaging 2.8 points on 20 percent shooting in road games.
The Gophers should have opportunities to improve these numbers across the board, however. Starting in Lincoln, the Gophers face three bottom-tier Big Ten teams in their final four road games. Back-to-back games at Rutgers (11-12, 4-9) and Northwestern (12-11, 3-9) come at the end of the month, before a tough one March 8 at No. 24 Maryland (19-6, 10-4) to close the regular season.
Murphy, who was limited to only four shots Saturday, said he isn’t going to change his pregame routine for the remaining road games, but he believes the Gophers need to do something different as a team on opponents’ courts to get out of this funk.
“Whether it’s the way we warm up, or how seriously we take it when we warm up,” Murphy said, “just getting that many more shots up during our routine. I think that’s something that could change probably.”