There have been two constants this season for the Gophers men's basketball team in the first month: Losing close games to high-major opponents and Daniel Oturu having a breakout campaign.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, they haven't figured out how to win with their 6-foot-10 sophomore playing like one of the best centers in recent program history.
The latest example came Friday, when Oturu's 19 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks were not enough to keep the Gophers from falling to 0-4 vs. high-major opponents this season in a 73-68 loss to DePaul before an announced 10,260 at Williams Arena.
"Clearly, we were close and we had our chances," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "You just kind of strip them all down and take them one game at time and evaluate. You don't lump all the losses together."
The Gophers (3-4), who shot 36% from the floor Friday, nearly erased a double-digit deficit in the second half. Freshman guard Bryan Greenlee's steal with 10.7 seconds left set up a final play with the Gophers trailing 71-68, but Gabe Kalscheur's three-pointer was blocked by Paul Reed with less than a second remaining.
The Blue Demons (8-0) added a third road victory over a Power Five opponent, after having already beaten Iowa and Boston College. Charlie Moore finished with 21 points and 12 assists, and Reed had 11 points and eight blocks.
Pitino thought his players built enough confidence beating two midmajor opponents after three consecutive losses away from home to Oklahoma, Butler and Utah. But instead more questions arise.
Can the Gophers make enough plays down the stretch to win a tight game? Is fatigue a factor? All four losses have come by single digits, including two games by a few possessions.
Oturu — who lost a defensive rebound out of bounds with 13.4 seconds to play, only for the Gophers to get the ball back on Greenlee's steal moments later — played a career-high 39 minutes. Payton Willis, who had 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting in 36 minutes on a sore ankle, missed a layup with 61 seconds to play.
"For us, it's just finishing up games and making all those extra small plays," sophomore Jarvis Omersa said.
Are the Gophers relying too much on outside shooting when they need to end offensive droughts? They failed to make a basket in the final 6 minutes, 34 seconds Friday and shot 7-for-29 from three-point range overall.
Can the Gophers make enough free throws to win against quality opponents? They were only 19-for-30 from the foul line vs. the Blue Demons.
"Every game is a little bit different," Pitino said. "It's been free-throw shooting at times. This game specifically, I thought in the second half towards the end there were some loose balls we had — and we just didn't get them."
Friday's game was the first of five consecutive Gophers contests against high-major opponents. The challenges continue Monday at home vs. Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, followed with early Big Ten matchups at Iowa (Dec. 9) and vs. Ohio State (Dec. 15) at home.
Oturu's standout play alone doesn't figure to be enough to beat these teams.
The most critical sequence Friday came after Oturu's two free throws cut the Gophers' deficit to 69-66 with under three minutes left. DePaul responded with a layup to restore its five-point lead, and then the Gophers' Alihan Demir was blocked by Reed trying to finish at the rim after Oturu passed out of a double team. DePaul then turned the ball over, but on the ensuing Gophers possession, Willis missed his wide-open layup.
Willis showed toughness returning to the game after heading to the locker room limping on his right ankle. He scored five points during a stretch in which his layup cut it to 51-50, but that's as close as the Gophers found themselves late Friday.
"I'm doing all right," Willis said. "I just landed on somebody's foot and rolled it a little bit. They killed us on the offensive rebounds . We didn't do a good enough job finishing possessions. We played good defense."