In today's Star Tribune: my story on the Gophers' two transfers -- Reggie Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald -- building their game and their friendship as they sit out.
For two weeks, the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team enjoyed what felt like a rumble of momentum. The Gophers were still losing, yes, but after getting slammed by a total of 50 points in two games, they’d managed to keep it within seven for five straight contests.
Then came Northwestern. The Wildcats boxed Minnesota into a corner for the second time this season on Thursday, walloping the Gophers to the tune of 82-58.
It’s been six days since that game, with Minnesota forced into a bye week right after the massacre before facing Michigan at Williams Arena tonight (8 p.m. CT; BTN).
“It feels like a long break,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “It always stinks when you don’t play well and you’ve got to let that simmer and sit for a while.”
Both Pitino and players said in Tuesday news conferences that they felt offensively Northwestern and its matchup zone was just a bad matchup for them this year (despite that the Gophers often play and practice matchup zone themselves). But as ugly and rushed as Minnesota’s offense was in that lop-sided fight, the bigger problem might have been the defense. After all, the Gophers’ offense has been mostly dreadful all year, but scrappy defense has at times kept them in the ring.
They held the league’s top three three-point percentage teams – Indiana (.422), Michigan State (.422) and Michigan (.403) to 32 percent or worse in four games, and an average of 26.4 percent. The highlight was a Jan. 30 game at Indiana, when the Hoosiers managed just 2 of 18 attempts. The Gophers also held all five opponents from Jan. 16 to Jan. 30 below 46 percent from the field after allowing teams to shoot 50.8 percent or better in five of the previous six games.
Not so at Northwestern, where the Wildcats sank 12 of 27 threes (44.4 percent) and shot 53.7 percent from the field overall.
“We were starting to get an identity,” Pitino said. “We lost that a little bit.”
The Gophers fell behind 13-2 less than four minutes in, and after pulling within six twice, sank to a 14-point deficit by halftime.
Panic, senior Joey King believes, set in then.
“It was a little bit of a lack of maturity,” he said. “We were down by 15 at the half and just kind of struggled to get our minds right …but it doesn’t take away from the fact that in some of these other matchups we’ve been able to step up to the challenge and play really well.”
Boosting the Gophers’ damaged egos is the fact that Minnesota's defense played Michigan tough the last time around, the second game into what looked like some semblance of forward movement. Minnesota used a hot second half in that contest – outshooting Michigan 46.9 to 31 percent and winning the boards 21 to 18 – to keep it competitive at the end before falling 74-69, the Gophers eighth straight loss in the series.
The Wolverines haven’t been playing their best brand of basketball as of late either, especially in back-to-back home losses to Indiana and Michigan State by a total of 29 points. But Michigan could cue a resurgence if Caris LeVert rejoins the pack after missing ten games with what the team is calling a lower leg injury. Multiple reports emerged on Tuesday that LeVert has been cleared to play, and could be a game-time decision.
Regardless, the Gophers know rediscovering some defensive life would be the key to the incredibly elusive victory.
“We played Michigan tough at their place and we played Indiana tough,” King said. “Come back here. Michigan at home, it’s no different. We’re going to chase them off the three I’m sure and do everything we can to slap down on their drives and still close out to shooters.”