The Gophers men’s basketball team was threatening — or at least threatening to threaten — with about 3½ minutes left on the clock Sunday. Minnesota had cut Indiana’s lead to 11 at 77-66, the closest the team had been since early in the second half. Those who have watched the Gophers play eight two-possession games in the Big Ten this season had to wonder: another close one?
And then: swish.
Hoosiers freshman James Blackmon Jr. hit his sixth three-pointer of the night. Indiana would hit two more threes before the 90-71 blowout was over, abruptly snatching any momentum away from Minnesota and turning the final three minutes into a home-team shootaround.
In all, Indiana made 18 three-pointers, a school record. It was also a school record for Minnesota for threes allowed.
“We knew they could shoot it, we didn’t expect them to make 18 threes,” Gophers senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “We’ve been playing really good defensively, and I think it was kind of a shock.”
Unfortunately for the Gophers, the long-range attack could be a preview of the next few games — starting Wednesday with a Northwestern team that nailed nine of 20 shots from beyond the arc in an overtime upset of Iowa just hours before Minnesota was undone by Indiana.
Much has been said about the Gophers’ improved defense this season, and with good reason. The Gophers have moved out of the Big Ten basement in defensive efficiency rankings and firmly into middle ground. Minnesota has been in the top five nationally in steals and forced turnovers all year. Coach Richard Pitino’s zone defenses — both the matchup and the 2-3 — have had some impressive moments, stifling opponents during a three-game winning streak heading into Bloomington.
But on Sunday, that improvement was once again tagged with an asterisk: While Minnesota’s overall defense looks better, its three-point defense is lagging far behind. The Gophers are allowing opponents to shoot 35.7 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks them behind 241 teams in Division I.
Hypothetically, the Gophers should excel in guarding the three-pointer: Minnesota’s three best defenders are Mathieu, Andre Hollins and Nate Mason, the three guys normally patrolling downtown. But the Gophers’ increased reliance on the zone, mostly a positive, has hindered that efficiency.
On Tuesday, Pitino said he thought 12 of Indiana’s 18 threes — mostly against the zone — were properly contested, but it’s hard to argue with the Hoosiers’ success.
“I feel pretty comfortable in both [man-to-man and zone],” Hollins said. “It’s just you get a little nerve-racked when there are four shooters out there and you’re in a zone.”
The Gophers now hit a stretch loaded with the league’s best shooting teams. That three-game winning streak came against teams ranked ninth (Iowa), 12th (Purdue) and 14th (Nebraska) in the conference in three-point shooting. Before traveling to Indiana — the Big Ten’s best threat from distance, hitting 41.7 percent of its threes in conference play — the Gophers had only played one of the league’s top five three-point shooting squads. That would be Maryland (37.3 percent), where Minnesota fell 70-58 after allowing eight three-pointers.
In the next four games, the Gophers will get three of the Big Ten’s top-five shooting teams: Northwestern (ranked fifth, shooting 35.8 percent in the Big Ten), then Wisconsin (third, 37.4), Michigan State (second, 37.7) and Wisconsin again.
“I think we’ll mix it up,” Hollins said of the Gophers’ defense. “We’ll have to play a lot of man but we’ll go zone as well. It’s just going to be strategy. It will be up to the coaches to see which defense will really be effective against which team.”