As Richard Pitino watched and rewound, watched and rewound, there was something new he noticed: His players looked scared.
Scared to get the ball with the clock running out. Scared to throw up the big shot. Scared to be the goat in the latest sloppy scenario of Gophers’ 2-7 start to the Big Ten men’s basketball season.
Scared to fail.
The coach — who dissects game tapes several times before putting them to bed — had noticed confidence slumping for some time. But following Wednesday night’s 63-58 loss at Penn State, the Gophers’ mental struggles have surged.
For a team that has, through a grim first half of the conference season, found reason to practice the little things ad nauseam — from shooting extra free throws to bringing back offseason block-out drills — the mental slump presents a new challenge. Pitino’s team, which is on pace to win half as many conference games as a year ago, will work to get its collective heads straight starting Saturday night at home against Nebraska.
“Our guys were a little scared to shoot the big shot or make the big play,” Pitino said. “I could see it during the Penn State game. ... And that’s on me. I’ve got to get these guys to play looser, freer, with less expectations. I’ve got to do a better job of that.”
Since the start of the new year, Pitino and the players have struggled to explain the Gophers’ end-of-game foibles. Sometimes it’s the open shots players don’t want to take. Sometimes it’s a senseless turnover. Sometimes it’s a hard-to-understand foul, or chunks of missed opportunities at the free-throw line.
Over and over, the Gophers have fallen victim to their own blunders, and the trend is not improving.
“I think, collectively, we get a little tighter and kind of panic a little bit [in the final minutes],” senior guard Andre Hollins said. “Moving forward, I’ve got to be more of a calming factor, bring everybody together and say, ‘We’re OK, we’re fine.’ ”
Many of those failures — balls bouncing off feet, open shots clanging away — are not coachable in and of themselves. But Pitino believes the moments could be indicative of something bigger.
“If they are doing those things, it’s not because they’re bad players, it’s probably because they’re feeling pressure,” he said. “When you lose close games and you miss shots, certainly that’s natural. It’s just the world that we live in today — when you lose or when you don’t play well individually, you can’t hide. You cannot hide in today’s world.”
Step 1 in the plan for lifting that stress? Ban Twitter. Pitino said Friday he is having each player delete his account on the social media platform for the rest of the season, to help block out the inevitable negativity. He isn’t ruling out trying other measures, such as bringing in a sports psychologist, not unusual among high-level programs. And he is changing the way he shows some game film these days — being careful not to further damage confidence by showing players failing over and over.
Thursday, after returning home from State College, Pa., Pitino talked with his players about getting past the anxiety that lurks just a slump away from the minds of most elite competitors.
“I have fear of failure. Everybody’s got fear of failure,” the coach said. “The greatest players and coaches in the game have that. ... They’ve got to be more disappointed in themselves if they don’t take the big shot.”
Point guard DeAndre Mathieu pointed out that no one, even the veterans, are exempt from the sloppy plays that have plagued the Gophers. The three turnovers in the final 47 seconds Wednesday were from the hands of seniors Mo Walker (two) and Hollins (one).
With 50 seconds remaining and the Gophers trailing by four, Joey King popped to the top of the arc, caught a clean pass and found himself wide open. King paused, waited for a defender to close and chose to pump-fake and drive rather than hoist an open three. A second later, he tried to slide a pass underneath the hoop, but it ricocheted out of bounds off Walker.
Pitino, though, didn’t hesitate. He scowled furiously at King, who was walking toward the bench, and screamed: “Shoot the ball! Shoot the ball!”
King has the ability — the junior forward’s 32 three-pointers are second-best on the team — but it was another mental mistake in Pitino’s eyes.
In spite of their own slip-ups, the upperclassmen are charged with being coaches on the court and calming their teammates in the high-pressure moment.
“I don’t think there is anything in common, just us making silly plays,” Mathieu said, specifically of late turnovers. “Guys are scared. Scared to fail. And normally when you’re scared to fail, you end up doing it anyway.”