Richard Pitino has announced an interesting addition to his coaching arsenal: divine intervention.
“Pray, go to church,” Pitino joked Friday when asked about fixing a major weakness of his Gophers: three-point shooting.
The Gophers are the worst team in the Big Ten and among the least productive in all of college basketball from beyond the arc this season. They are last in three-point makes (18 fewer than second-to-last Indiana in the conference), accuracy (30.4 percent) and percentage of points from three-pointers (21.2 percent) — that statistic was ranked 349th out of 353 Division I teams as of Friday.
Yet, somehow, the Gophers enter Saturday’s game at No. 9 Michigan State in NCAA tournament contention.
“We go inside a lot,” Pitino said. “We do. It’s got to be a point of emphasis of taking good shots. We’ve got to just continue to rep it out in the gym, because there are guys who aren’t shooting a great percentage. Keep giving them confidence, and keep putting emphasis on taking the right shots.”
Amir Coffey leads the Gophers with 18.3 points per game in Big Ten play, but his three-point percentage dropped from 36.8 as a sophomore to 29.2 this season. Dupree McBrayer shot a career-best 41.6 from three during the Gophers’ NCAA tournament season in 2017, but it’s down to 29.2 this season. Backup point guard Isaiah Washington didn’t make strides with his poor three-point shooting from his freshman to sophomore year (24.1 to 21.4).
The misses are adding up, and now the Gophers are on pace to set a program record for lowest three-point percentage.
Gabe Kalscheur is the only player in the main rotation shooting above 30 percent from three (36.2). Brock Stull shoots a team-best 53 percent (8-for-15) from long distance, but the graduate transfer averages only 1.6 points in 8.9 minutes. Stull, who was the top three-point threat the past two seasons at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, could get more playing time now.
“I need to look to him a little bit more, because he can shoot it,” Pitino said Friday. “Dupree obviously isn’t shooting the ball well, but he gives other things besides shooting. He defends and plays hard.”
Hitting 10 three-pointers in the season opener vs. Nebraska Omaha was not indicative of what was to come. The Gophers only reached double figures in threes once more in the next 22 games, going 10-for-24 vs. Rutgers on Jan. 12. On Wednesday against Wisconsin, Kalscheur hit Minnesota’s first three-point attempt of the game, but the team missed its final 12 in a 56-51 home loss.
Opponents have made it a habit to play at least some zone defense against the Gophers to exploit their biggest weakness. Only on a few occasions has that backfired, most notably when Kalscheur got hot.
Kalscheur, a freshman, opened the season scorching nets to the tune of 54.5 percent shooting (23-for-42) from three-point range in his first seven games, including 7-for-12 from three in a victory vs. Santa Clara and a game-winning trifecta vs. Washington, both coming at the Vancouver Shootout in November.
But over the past 16 games, beginning with a scoreless effort in his first conference game at Ohio State on Dec. 2, the DeLaSalle product is shooting 27.2 percent (24-for-88) on threes.
It’s unfair to blame the team’s outside shooting woes on a single player’s up-and-down play, but Kalscheur had a recent three-game stretch in which he averaged 14.7 points on 9-for-22 shooting on threes. It wasn’t a coincidence the Gophers went 2-1 in that stretch, including consecutive victories over Iowa (Kalscheur had 19 points) and Illinois.
Even in a Jan. 22 loss at Michigan, Kalscheur’s three-pointer with 30.9 seconds left tied the score and nearly forced overtime.
Asked Wednesday if he felt extra pressure to help the Gophers get points from beyond the arc, Kalscheur didn’t hesitate: “No.”
He hopes the Gophers just keep practicing to improve their shooting.
“I’m sure we’re always going to have some cold nights,” he said. “I’m a shooter, so I’ve just got to keep shooting. Everyone is going to have those off nights. Someone has to keep shooting.”