The Gophers haven’t done much except lose lately, but coach Richard Pitino said on Friday that he sees improvement after a close loss vs. then-No. 1 Michigan State and a game that Minnesota mostly controlled at Penn State before falling apart in the final six minutes.
Of course, Pitino realizes that is not enough.
“I think you’re seeing an upward trajectory in the Big Ten of playing better,” he said. “But obviously we want to win.”
In the league opener at Ohio State, Minnesota hung with the Buckeyes before collapsing in the second half when forward Jordan Murphy had to sit with foul trouble. Against Michigan State, the Gophers turned the ball over just ten times and played hearty defense, but shot just 33.8 percent from the field. At Penn State, Minnesota sank 11 three-pointers, but turned over the ball 17 times and fell apart down the stretch.
Still, Minnesota is one of four winless teams in league play and is in the midst of seven losses in the last eight games.
In every contest, the Gophers have struggled to get it all together, but Pitino believes that time will come soon. Minnesota plays Northwestern at home on Saturday (1:30 p.m. CT, BTN).
“For 34 minutes, when we stuck to the game plan [at Penn State], we were really good,” he said. “I mean, we were a really good team. You look at Michigan State. We played with them until the last two or three minutes. Ohio State, we had some good moments. At some point here, we’ll break through. Hopefully it will be Saturday.”
A change of pace
Now that Murphy is starting, he’s been playing more small forward, a switch that on the surface doesn’t necessarily play to the strengths that he’s shown so far, or Minnesota’s biggest needs: post play.
But Pitino said although there is some transition necessary, he thinks the move will benefit Murphy -- who is averaging 10.9 points and 8.5 rebounds -- in the long run. With the athletic freshman in the 3 spot, Pitino also changes a lot of the kinds of plays he runs.
“We’ve put things in for him at the small forward spot to post up,” he said. “I think the adjustment for him is not necessarily offensively, it’s defensively guarding guys off of staggered screens, things like that.
"Sure, it’s an adjustment, but I’m not necessarily running things for Murph that I would run for Carlos [Morris] if he was at the three… I think it’s going to help [Murphy] in the end. He’s 6-6, he’s got great versatility and he could be very valuable.”
At Penn State, though, Murphy only managed two shots – both three-pointers, which he made. He was mired in foul trouble for extensive periods but also seemed to have a harder time getting involved in the offense. Pitino said he wants Murphy to post up more in games like that and go to the rim with more power.
“He did have a couple of turnovers where he had an opportunity to go make a play and he didn’t do it,” Pitino said. “I think he’s starting to understand that he’s at the top of everyone’s scouting report, and now he’s got to do other things well. I think as it progresses, he’ll understand more about how to get his points.
A call to arms
In the Gophers’ Big Ten home opener against Michigan State, Williams Arena, full to the rafters, had that special kind of roar. On Friday, Pitino made a plea of sorts for fans to return to the Barn in droves when Minnesota takes on the Wildcats on Saturday, despite an opponent that might not draw the same interest.
“We need it,” Pitino said. “When this arena is alive, it’s as tough as any place out there… I appreciate anybody who comes to our games… I hope they understand how valuable they are to our performance – we draw off of them. They want certain things out of us too, it’s a two-way street obviously that I get. But they can impact the game a lot. And games like this on Saturday – to me, I respect the hell out of Northwester, the players the coach – but it may not look like, the name, as good …It’s going to be a tough, tough out, so we need all the help we can get.”