Our first look at the Gophers men’s basketball team in the season’s second round — the Big Ten schedule — has not been a pretty one. The Gophers, struggling on both ends, have stumbled to an 0-2 start on the heels of one tough matchup, at Maryland, and one missed opportunity, at Purdue.
In somewhat of a must-win mode already, they return home for a big matchup Tuesday against No. 22 Ohio State, which dropped its opener to Iowa at home last week but recovered well against Illinois on Saturday, winning by 16.
Scoffing at the “must-win” notion in early January? A victory and the Gophers could quickly forget what has been a frustrating start. A loss and they would be staring down a legitimate losing streak, with a road game at defending conference champion Michigan up next and a home bout with much-improved Iowa on deck.
“We can’t lose three at home like we did last year,” coach Richard Pitino said. “This is a quality opponent, a very good team, a very well-coached team. We need our fans in this building to be alive.”
Ohio State is shorter on established veterans than it was a year ago at this point, when it was ranked No. 3 in the nation, but the Buckeyes have one of the country’s most highly touted freshmen in D’Angelo Russell. They can shoot the three and are improving defensively. While inconsistent, they figure to be a tough test.
“We definitely are ready to get another game under our belt,” Gophers point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “Whenever you don’t play well, you always want to get back on the court and try to get the last game out of your head.”
Williams Arena has been good this season to the Gophers, undefeated there in the nonconference slate. They are hoping the comforts of home carry over into the new year and push the team past a tough road trip.
While the Gophers were away, we learned some things about this 11-4 team.
Three things we know
Even in a volatile league, nothing comes easily. Predictable? That’s something no one would call the Big Ten. With the exception of fourth-ranked Wisconsin (14-1, 2-0) and surprising No. 11 Maryland (14-1, 2-0), the conference’s expected top teams have ranged from flawed to disappointing. None of this means the Gophers are in a better spot to spring up the standings. One thing that hasn’t changed is the conference’s depth. Although the order changes, every team lands inside Ken Pomeroy’s top 160 teams, and all but Rutgers and Northwestern sit in the top 100.
Mo Walker will be critical. The starting center is the Gophers’ only true post scorer. When he’s active, he’s as good as any of the league’s bigs not named Frank Kaminsky. The competition level has risen dramatically since the end of nonconference games, but Walker has been the team’s best and most consistent player. An aggressive Walker down low spreads opposing defenses and helps open up the perimeter. That reliance was never more obvious than against Maryland, when Walker’s spark brought the team within three points before the half, and his absence (after the Terrapins began trapping) spurred a drought.
Fouls and free-throw shooting will haunt. In the past two games, the Gophers have out-fouled their opponents, 41 to 33. They shot and made fewer free throws: 25-for-41 (60.9 percent) to their opponents’ 42-for-55 (76.4 percent). That’s a 17-point swing in a pair of games the Gophers lost by a collective 16 points. They have been foul prone all season and are ranked next-to-last in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage. On a team with four critical seniors, this is an alarming trend.
Three things we don’t know
Can Mathieu recover? Last season, junior college transfer DeAndre Mathieu surprised the league with his quickness and his ability to distribute and score at the hoop, despite his size. In the first two Big Ten games this year, the point guard has averaged just 7.5 points while compiling nine turnovers and just two assists.
Is the defense really better? It certainly appeared that way in the nonconference schedule, when Minnesota ranked first in the nation in steals and seemed better prepared to pressure teams the way Pitino wants. In the first two Big Ten games, the Gophers have failed to disrupt either team in a meaningful way and racked up fouls rather than steals.
Will the Gophers get back to their stellar ball-sharing ways? In their past six nonconference games, they averaged 22.8 assists, making its way to best in the country. In their two Big Ten games? The Gophers have averaged 10, a stunning tumble.