The crowd at Williams Arena leapt to its feet, ecstatic to find a reason to celebrate again. Suddenly, a defense that had been shockingly bad all season was functioning again and, for the moment, shutting down one of the Big Ten’s most efficient offenses.
Halfway through Saturday’s first half, the Gophers were leading Indiana by seven when Joey King reached behind Troy Williams and slapped the 6-7 forward’s shot to the ground — Minnesota’s second blocked shot in a one-minute span. Fellow senior Carlos Morris came up with the basketball and raced down the court for a jump shot to extend the Gophers’ lead to nine.
Coming on the heels of a pair of 25-point losses, the Gophers’ newfound defensive energy felt like a 40-degree day after a polar vortex.
Indiana ultimately pulled even at halftime and passed Minnesota in the second half, winning 70-63 to hand the Gophers their seventh consecutive loss and 10th in 11 games. But Minnesota heads to Michigan with the hope that one of its best defensive performances of the season, albeit in a loss, will be enough to build on.
Coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday he hopes the strong game inspires the players’ confidence, a missing ingredient for a couple of weeks now.
“I think we have the talent and the length defensively to disrupt a lot of people,” King said. “It’s just whether or not we come with that mentality. … We’ve taken some tough ones this year. It’s all about eliminating that loss from your mind and moving forward.”
On Saturday, Minnesota played all man-to-man defense, a sharp diversion from a game plan of mostly zone in previous contests. The Gophers likely will continue that trend at Michigan on Wednesday, given the Wolverines’ cache of talented shooters. It will be a tough assignment for the Gophers, who haven’t yet shown they’re capable of maintaining a high level of play in either formation.
Minnesota is ranked 243rd nationally in defensive efficiency, according to analyst Ken Pomeroy, well below any other team in the Big Ten and the worst of all power-conference teams. The Gophers are allowing 1.05 points per possession and have done so in a stunning variety of ways: allowing a cascade of second chances, getting blown by in transition and losing opponents on the perimeter. They’ve left unobstructed passing lanes and failed to make the right rotations in their zone. And Pitino, not long ago preaching his signature pressure defense, has all but abandoned that staple because he doesn’t think his team is capable of executing it.
Pitino has cited the lack of length — point guards Nate Mason and Kevin Dorsey are 6-2 and 6-feet, and Minnesota has several other undersized players — and the influx of youth on the roster as factors behind the slog. The Gophers’ frontcourt has been hampered by foul trouble and ineffectiveness, with sophomore Bakary Konate still learning the basics of the game and King unable to match up with many traditional power forwards.
“Guys are working hard,” Pitino said. “It’s a mental thing of understanding of how to compete on the court and work your way through things mentally. When a mistake happens, do they work through it with effort and execution and intensity?”
Attempts to stress the importance of effort, execution and intensity to the players went further Monday, when Richard Coffey — a former maximum-effort Gophers player and father of 2016 recruit Amir Coffey of Hopkins — spoke to the team about taking responsibility.
“The players play,” King said. “It really doesn’t come down to Coach. He can preach all he wants about us playing with effort and energy, but what it comes down to is the five guys on the floor. So if we’re not producing, we’re not doing our jobs.”