There is no question if Minnesota wants to turn its third win (60-42 over Nebraska on Saturday) into a season-salvaging run (NIT would be considered a victory at this point), the Gophers will need to improve in a lot of areas.
The most important? Defense.
Someday, coach Richard Pitino wants his high-pressure defense to be the signature of his team. That day is not today -- too many players are liabilities -- which explains why Pitino has more regularly adopted a 2-3 zone in place of man-to-man in the half court.
The good news is that zone appears to be sharper in the last four games, a stretch in which Minnesota has won two and held opponents to fewer than 60 points three times.
The bad news is all three of those games have come against teams in the bottom seven of the conference standings and the bottom seven in Ken Pom's offensive efficiency ratings.
On Saturday, the Gophers quickly scrambled into their zone after tipoff and rolled with that formation all game after watching Nebraska struggle with that defense a couple weeks earlier in Lincoln.
This time around, the Huskers looked even more flummoxed, unable to probe inside and turning the ball over 20 times as they tried. Nebraska -- employing a pure motion attack in the second half -- got better, but the zone was still clearly the star that earned the win.
"We stayed tight on the non-shooters, we just targeted [Walter] Pitchford and [Terran] Petteway, made sure we made their nights difficult and we challenged late on bad shooters."
After the game, Nebraska coach Tim Miles complimented Minnesota's execution and ability to quickly jump into the zone from its full-court press.
"They do a good job of just kind of getting you to race around a little bit," he said. "They get you spread out and then by the time you are able to get lined up in your zone attack, now the clock is down....I think their ability to press and then seemlessly go into zone while we were able to set up zone [offense] was probably our most difficult challenge."
Perhaps as encouraging as anything was the Gophers' fouling restraint. Minnesota accounted for just 12 whistles -- tying a season low (Dec. 22 vs. Furman) -- including just one for Mo Walker, who had fouled four times in each of the previous five games.
"Mo was never ever an issue defensively," Pitino said. "Sometimes it's a little bit of a liability with him, we've got to sub Elliott in. I didn't see that tonight, which was nice. We didn't foul a lot -- for a really hard driving team we didn't foul a lot. And so I thought we were pretty good on that."
Can the Gophers continue the trend? They'll start to find out on Saturday, vs. a physical Purdue team at Williams Arena. Then Minnesota will go on the road, first visiting a big Iowa team, then at Indiana, the best three-point shooting team (40.9 percent) in the league.
The Gophers' zone is probably their highlight defense right now, but that doesn't mean Pitino is willing to use it no matter what.
"I'm not going to play it vs. Wisconsin [for example]," he said. "Too good of a passing and shooting team. They'll know that. What I like to do a lot is ... gauge it."
Team scouts play in heavily to the way Minnesota mixes up its defense. Sometimes Pitino will have his team play zone after their makes and man-to-man after their misses and chart the effectiveness of each. That means a lot of switching, which can confuse some of the more raw players -- especially Gaston Diedhiou -- but Pitino said he thinks his team has gotten much better with the quick adjustments this year.
Minnesota will have to improve both if it wants to change its current path.
"I think we're comfortable in man and zone," Andre Hollins said. "I think one of the biggest things we've got to focus on is rebounding after it."