On Saturday afternoon, Minnesota fell, 85-81 in double overtime to South Dakota, a loss that sent off shock waves around social media.
Was it an ugly loss? Absolutely. Is the sky falling? Probably not. A few thoughts of mine:
It wasn’t the worst loss of the decade. It wasn’t even the worst loss of coach Richard Pitino’s short tenure at Minnesota. I know no fan wants to see a team from the Summit League come in and wallop their squad on its home court. The 47-game non-conference home winning streak, and the nearly nine-year run without a loss in a “guarantee game” made it appear even worse. But in the grand scheme of things, that game was meaningless. It doesn’t tell you anything about what this season is, and how it will go. The worst losses have more to do with context. This is the beginning of a long season and a Gophers team full of youth and inexperience. It’s not all that surprising that they made a lot of mistakes and were bitten by a scrappy team that had a good night. No, the “worst” losses must have ramifications and Minnesota has had plenty of those over the years, even since Pitino has been around. There was the triple overtime game a veteran Minnesota bunch couldn’t pull out at Purdue in Pitino’s first season, the miss-the-last-shot Northwestern slugfest at home, and of course the 83-57 loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten tournament that year – a rout that probably caused Minnesota to miss the NCAA tournament – on a night when star guards Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins totaled just 13 points. There was the season-ending loss to Penn State at home last year – putting an ugly cap on an ugly season and firmly shutting the door for any postseason at all. And, well, I might point to the Texas Tech loss in Puerto Rico this year as a worse one than the most recent South Dakota crumble because the Gophers had an opportunity to turn around a trip that had started poorly and head home with momentum. Instead, a 13-point tumble set the tone for a young team still finding its confidence. I realize all of that might be a little depressing, but I think I made my point.
It was a game of paradoxes. Monday’s game was filled with mistakes. It also featured several notably strong points and some very impressive performances by a couple of Gophers. The areas that have most often gotten Minnesota into trouble this season weren’t an issue. The Gophers outrebounded their opponent for the second consecutive game, this time 50-41, the biggest margin thus far. Minnesota fouled 21 times, but they drew 28, and got to the line 35 times over South Dakota’s 19, making 27 of those (77.1 percent). Meanwhile, both Joey King and Jordan Murphy notched the second double-doubles of their careers with the latter pulling down an eye-popping 17 boards to go with 19 points. It certainly marked a consistent dominance for him one game after putting up 24 and 10, respectively. Five scorers finished in double digits overall. The problems? The lack of interior defense, the ineffectiveness of centers Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou on both ends – an aspect that should have been a big Minnesota advantage with the Coyotes’ lack of size – and shooting, which could prove to be one of the Gophers weaknesses this year.
It could happen again. Don’t look now, but there are a couple more talented non-power conference teams on Minnesota’s upcoming home schedule, starting with Tuesday opponent South Dakota State. The Gophers round out their non-conference slate with Milwaukee, which could be the most talented and balanced of the bunch. Minnesota is a team that should get better as the year goes on, but the Gophers are certainly not without their flaws, and their youth makes any matchup potentially dangerous. Don’t count it out that it could happen twice this season.