Minnesota (6-11; 0-5 in the Big Ten) vs. Indiana (14-3; 4-0) at Williams Arena
Saturday, Jan. 16 at 11:30 a.m.
Spread: Minnesota +10
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said he expected a rebuild in Year Three but “I didn’t know it would be this bad,” he said.
Previewing Minnesota and Indiana, here.
The first four minutes of the Gophers’ 84-59 gut-punch in Nebraska on Tuesday were the acceleration before the crash. The men’s basketball team, with three freshmen and a pair of sophomores driving, provided a fleeting glimpse of what the Gophers look like when they're ramming the gas.
In those opening minutes, a new starting five pushed the Gophers to an 8-4 lead. Ultimately, too small a sample size amid the carnage. But moments later, Minnesota was falling apart after Richard Pitino tinkered with that initial lineup. The surge fizzled.
Coincidence? Perhaps not. The coach said afterward that he thinks that youthful five might have the best -- if not only -- chemistry of all the combinations he's used in a season marred by nine losses in the last 10 games. Friday say that he'll probably "roll with [that group] again" when Minnesota faces Indiana at home today.
Otherwise, the lack of communication and cohesiveness is as plain to see as the lopsided scores.
"We've got a real problem with communication," Pitino said. "That's why I went with that lineup. That lineup is the most connected. They talk the most. They're the most confident together. It may not be the best lineup, but they talk."
The difference shows. From the outset, a renewed energy propelled the group of freshmen Dupree McBrayer, Ahmad Gilbert and Jordan Murphy and sophomores Nate Mason and Bakary Konate to the early lead. McBrayer was attacking the defense. Murphy, though turnover prone, was getting to the rim. Gilbert swiped one of the first half's two steals and flipped the ball to McBrayer for the half's only assist. Three of just nine first-half rebounds were collected in that span, with two of them directly leading to shots.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, the good vibes didn't last long. After McBrayer and Konate each picked up a foul, Pitino first subbed in seniors Joey King and Carlos Morris, then made the floor a revolving door of different combinations. The feel of the game abruptly changed.
"I liked that lineup," Pitino said, though those five played together for only 1 minute, 58 seconds the rest of the way. "I thought they had good energy, good juice. And then we got in foul trouble and it kind of sucked the life out of us."
The change in speed, effort and direction had as much to do with the players who were in the game as much as the players that weren't. Vocal leadership has been a clear void all season; it’s not a strength of this year's upperclassmen. Junior Charles Buggs has been benched three times for what Pitino has hinted are bad practice tendencies. Morris and King are more likely to lead by example rather than speak up.
"Carlos and Joey are not great communicators," Pitino said, "and we're having some issues with that."
Instead, players like Gilbert, who has sat out five games this season while adapting to the college game’s speed, is now getting a chance based on his "enthusiasm" and his chatter and encouragement during huddles. Pitino has lauded McBrayer's toughness and his relentless attack, even in lopsided games. Murphy acknowledged on Tuesday night that the freshmen are realizing that many times they need to be the ones to talk.
"I think the first five minutes of the game, I think we played better than any first 4-5 minutes of the season, Murphy said. "It wasn't really a slow start, it got interesting. I think we do talk well as a group, I think we have a lot of chemistry in that group. I know we're just trying different things right now, but I liked the effort that we gave."
MY PREDICTION: Indiana's dominance on both ends is too much for the flailing Gophers to handle and no small improvements will be seen just yet.
Indiana, 102, Minnesota, 74