The Barn was quieter than it should have been on Wednesday night. It was quiet before the Gophers played Indiana in something close to a must-win game, and grew quieter in the last two minutes, as some fans began filing out into the bitter cold.
The Gophers would falter in virtually every aspect of the game and lose 68-56 to a Hoosiers team that had only one previous road victory in the Big Ten, at Nebraska. When time expired, after the Gophers went the final 2:15 without scoring a point, you could hear boos in the upper deck.
The Gophers made just 16% of their three-point shots and 52.6% of their free throws, missed a fast-break layup, struggled to create room in their half-court offense and made the game too easy for Indiana freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis, who finished with 27 points and 16 rebounds.
They are in the midst of what feels like a decisive collapse, losing three straight and five of their past six while often looking fatigued and disjointed.
The Indiana loss may end any reasonable hope of an NCAA tournament bid. Will it prove as decisive for coach Richard Pitino’s Minnesota career?
Pitino is coming off a season in which he made the tourney and beat a talented Louisville team. He has made the tourney two of the past three seasons.
Pitino’s agent could make the case that another injury to Eric Curry left his team without the frontcourt depth it so desperately needs. That would be a logical argument. But these kinds of decisions can be based as much on fan enthusiasm as fact.
The Gophers playing at home against Indiana with a tourney bid in the balance should generate some excitement. Having a hometown guy like Daniel Oturu establishing himself as one of the best players in the country should generate enthusiasm.
Instead, we’re watching a Gophers team trend from pretty good to pretty awful in short order, while Oturu looks like he’s being asked to carry too much of the load.
Oturu is the rare current Gopher who sometimes looks like he’s enjoying himself. He waved to fans and friends during warmups and danced after the anthem. He even helped staffers wipe the floor during a timeout.
He has been the only efficient offensive player on a bad offensive team, but on Wednesday he went 5-for-15 from the field, sometimes looking like his shots were more a function of hope than determination.
He needs help.
This team may not be able to give it to him, although Isaiah Ihnen should be playing alongside him in the starting lineup, providing shot-blocking and three-point shooting to a team that lacks both.
“Obviously, that’s a blow,’’ Pitino said of the loss. “There’s no way around it. We’ve got five games left. I always thought you had to win five of the [remaining] seven. You’ve dug yourself a hole. Any time you lose at home in this league, it’s a problem.
“Clearly, we’re frustrated, but the beauty of basketball is you can always rebound.’’
Pitino is signed through 2024, but his buyout is just $2 million. That’s a pittance if athletic director Mark Coyle decides he can do for the basketball program what he did for the football program by hiring P.J. Fleck.
When Fleck arrived, Pitino graciously welcomed him and has continued to praise him.
But Fleck might be the worst thing that has happened to Pitino: an adjacent example of what program-building can look like.
The Gophers are 6-9 in the Big Ten. Their remaining games: at Northwestern, home against Maryland, at Wisconsin and Indiana and home against Nebraska. If they win four of five, including an upset of Maryland, they could make the tourney, but does a team this worn down and torn down capable of that?
Indiana coach Archie Miller said his team, at its worst, is like a car on a wet road. The Gophers program suddenly appears to be skidding on black ice.