SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – Richard Pitino knew when Minnesota’s plane landed on Puerto Rico’s sunny shores the Gophers’ early-season growth and optimism would be tested. Two games later, those trials could not be more evident.
With turquoise beaches yards away, Pitino’s bunch has shed sweat in gyms, trying to identify winning combinations against improved competition. That search continues Sunday against Tubby Smith’s Texas Tech squad, the Gophers’ third and final matchup in San Juan.
The Red Raiders squeaked out a win over Mississippi State on Friday after allowing their opponent to rally from a 13-point deficit and take the lead. Much like the Gophers, Texas Tech has struggled at times offensively and on the boards.
“It’s another game,” said Smith, who coached at Minnesota from 2007 to 2013. “You coach so many games, you’ve got to prepare your team and make sure they come ready to play. The incentive is to leave here 2-1 instead of 1-2.”
The Gophers opened the tournament Thursday by dropping a disheartening game to Temple, losing by five. Less than 24 hours later, they slid by in another close one vs. Missouri State, winning 74-69. These tight, two-possession games have shown something about who these youthful, raw Gophers are now, and who they could become this season.
Rebounds will not come easy this year: After four games, the Gophers have lost every rebounding battle, even against three undersized, overmatched non-Power Five schools. They are averaging 36.5 rebounds per game, to their opponents’ 40.5. The issues? For some players, rebounding isn’t a natural strength. But often, the Gophers simply forget to block out and stick around to fight for loose balls. And their frontcourt has size but has not proven to be effectively physical in the paint, sometimes backing down at the slightest pressure.
Minnesota’s performance on the glass has been especially egregious on the defensive end, where the Gophers’ 35.1 defensive rebounding average ranks 259th nationally. Foes have pulled down 55 offensive rebounds and made it look easy.
Joey King has improved his shot: The senior forward has always had shooting ability, but he seems to have dialed things up a notch, after three games with at least 18 points. King started things off by hitting for a career-high 22 points in the opener against Missouri-Kansas City, and followed that with a 20-point game against Louisiana-Monroe.
On Friday, he dropped five three-pointers in the first eight minutes, with Missouri State slow to guard him. He made six of seven threes overall.
“I don’t know what they were doing on the pick-and-roll,” senior guard Caros Morris said of the Bears defense. “Joey is one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, in the country.”
That is a bit of an overstatement, and King still has to prove himself against stronger competition.
Problems with zone defenses persist: Last year, the Gophers’ zone offense — or lack of it — was one of the team’s major story lines. It’s a topic of conversation again, after Minnesota looked baffled against Missouri State. Pitino said that with a second game in two days, there was no time to prepare for a zone after facing a primarily man-to-man defense the day before. But the 2-3 zone that Missouri State showed is a standard defense used throughout the season.
“Teams are going to watch that and say, ‘OK, they’re not good against the zone,’ ” Pitino said. “So we’ve got to do a better job of it. That’s on me.”
The frontcourt isn’t there yet: Starting center Bakary Konate has high upside. King can thrive from the outside. Freshman Jordan Murphy has all the tools. But none of those players appears ready to battle down low. The Gophers have been trying to pound the ball in the post more in the past couple of games, but missed shots, bad positioning and weak attacks have thwarted that strategy. “We’ve got to play out of the post a little more,” Pitino said. “That’s something I want to do.”
When the Gophers are hitting three-pointers, the offense thrives. When they’re not, the team looks stagnant and out of control. The problem? The Gophers haven’t been consistent from behind the arc, hitting a combined 25 threes against UMKC and Missouri State, yet only nine in the other two games.