When it came to crunch time Sunday at Rutgers, the Gophers’ most experienced players deferred to freshmen, who were the ones playing more like veterans.
It was a glimpse into a bright future for Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for 41 points. It was also a disturbing trend where Minnesota’s three upperclassmen starters struggled: Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer combined for only 23 points on 9-for-31 shooting in a 68-64 loss to the Scarlet Knights.
Murphy, Coffey and McBrayer have rarely all played well in big games lately, which have the Gophers (17-11, 7-10) scrambling to stay in contention for an NCAA tournament at-large bid entering Thursday’s game at Northwestern (12-15, 3-13).
With six losses in the past seven games, and six consecutive road losses, the Gophers need to get their most experienced players on track or likely miss the NCAA tournament.
“Your leadership on the floor is your stabilizer in a challenging situation,” Big Ten Network analyst and former Penn State guard Jon Crispin said. “To me, that’s what’s missing. It sounds like one simple thing, but it’s a huge thing.”
McBrayer and Murphy are team co-captains, but Pitino said he might not name specific players for those roles in the future.
“I don’t really like captains, to be honest,” Pitino said. “There has to be leadership from everybody. Everybody has a role. Everybody can either give to the team or take from the team. Sometimes when you name captains, others may say, ‘Let the captains handle it.’ You can’t have that on a team. It’s not just Jordan’s and Dupree’s responsibility to lead. It’s not just Jordan’s and Dupree’s responsibility to have a voice.”
The Gophers decided to have a short practice Monday, less than 24 hours after Murphy went 1-for-3 at the foul line with five seconds left and a chance to tie in the loss at Rutgers. The first of those dramatic foul shouts was an air ball.
Pitino said Murphy was still down on himself because he so badly wanted to win.
“I tried to get him to understand we’ve got to move on,” Pitino said. “None of us are perfect. I didn’t coach a perfect game. You didn’t play a perfect game. You move on to the next one. You don’t dwell on it.”
Murphy isn’t the only struggling upperclassmen.
Coffey proved early in Big Ten play he could dominate offensively with high games of 32 points against Nebraska and 29 points against Rutgers. But opponents — even those two teams the second time around — have adjusted to slow him down. The 6-8 junior is averaging only 11 points on 35.9 percent shooting from the field in his past seven games.
McBrayer also has been in the biggest slump of his career. In the past 12 games, the senior guard is averaging only 6.9 points on 30 percent shooting, including six points on 2-for-9 shooting vs. Rutgers.
Murphy ranks among the top rebounders in college basketball and has nine double-doubles in his past 12 games. But his scoring touch has been missing, especially on the road. He is averaging only 10.1 points on 44.4 percent shooting on the road. The Gophers have a 1-8 record in those games away from home.
Coffey, McBrayer and Murphy have had a tough time against physical opponents in Big Ten play, Crispin said.
“You go up thinking you’re going to get all this contact, and you don’t actually try to make the basket,” Crispin said. “Those really tough guys don’t care how much contact they get. They’re going to finish, whether they get contact or not. That’s what I’m looking for in Minnesota. Who is that guy?”
McBrayer tried to encourage Murphy after the Rutgers loss. A two-time All-Big Ten forward, Murphy responded with a good practice to start this week.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to bounce back,’ ” McBrayer said. “He responded in practice making free throws and he stayed after late. He’s trying to get better at it. There’s a great opportunity in front of us. We just have to go out there and play hard.”