In the final stretch of the season, it’s a new struggle that is cropping up.

Early in the season, we thought ball handling might be an issue. Minnesota averaged 14.4 turnovers in its first seven games, and totaled 20 in two contests in that span. But that worry dwindled as the year went on, and as of late, the Gophers turnover margin has been stellar, with Minnesota forcing 8.6 more turnovers than it makes per game in the last five.

Through a greater stretch, free-throw shooting was the great drama. Through the first 20 games, Minnesota shot just 63.9 from the charity stripe, second-worst in the league only because Michigan State has managed somehow to be even more atrocious at the line. But in the last seven games, that’s abated too. The Gophers still rank second to last in the Big Ten but are shooting 73 percent in that span, almost ten percentage points better.

In some ways, these fading trends could be taken as a sign that Minnesota has done a good job of making adjustment to its weaknesses, but I’m not sure that’s exactly the case. We’ve seen other things simply decline (the Gophers’ passing ability) or remain a problem no matter what (defensive rebounding). Ball handling troubles cropped up again at the start of the league schedule before this current stretch.

Instead, it seems the Gophers are prone to mental ruts. A small problem becomes a big problem when the team focuses too much negative energy on it. This latest issue has the potential to be another such case.

In the last two games, Minnesota has allowed its most three-pointers and its second most three-pointers in team history. That’s 33 long balls in all in games that – other than the defensive rebounding effort – the Gophers played fairly well overall.

Following the Indiana game, it was easy to think that a hot night for the conference’s best three-point shooting team simply got the best of Minnesota. An anomaly.

After watching the film, coach Richard Pitino told the media he thought 12 of the 18 connections were properly contested. Fine. Fair enough.

But when Northwestern came out flinging, the story changed. Minnesota switched its defense, going from most zone to man-to-man, but it still couldn’t stop the flurry. Suddenly, the Gophers were guarding the perimeter with fear. In the second half, perhaps a little too wary of the arc, the Wildcats --who hit 15 threes overall -- were able to be a little more versatile and get the ball inside more.

So if it’s not the zone, necessarily, and it’s not the main, why is this suddenly happening?

Well first off, Minnesota has faced two of the top-five shooting teams in the last two games. But Northwestern doesn’t really reel off 15 threes on the regular.

Freshman guard Nate Mason said the team’s communication on defense has been off lately.

“I would think we would learn, but we came out and did the same things,” he  said. “We’re just not communicating on defense. We worked on it in practice – talking – and we got out here and we lost it.”

Senior guard DeAndre Mathieu said he thought the team was a bit lazy early, but was all over shooters in the second half.

“And they were still making shots,” he said. “So then it starts to sink in – like maybe it wasn’t just Indiana making shots. Maybe it’s something wrong with our defense.”

Pitino said that going in, he played to mix up both his man and zone defenses, but when Northwestern starting sinking shots, the coach stayed with man and just focused on getting his defenders to run shooters off the line.

When his players stopped executing, he wondered if it had gotten to them also.

“You give up 18 and then you come right back and they’re hitting crazy shots … it has to get in their minds,” he said. “It is deflating, but you have to get mentally tougher and that’s the reality of it.”

Mathieu said afterwards an upset Pitino wondered aloud where the team’s “heart” was.

All season, the Gophers have found new ways to lose close games – to get close enough and fall short enough. Wednesday was their seventh loss by one or two possessions in conference play. Now, they’ve got another reason to point to.

This time, it probably slammed the door shut on any barely lingering NCAA tournament aspirations and felt similar, in Minnesota minds, to losses vs. Illinois and Northwestern at home last year. The Gophers ultimately fell off the bubble then too, entering the NIT as a 1-seed.

“We needed this –a  lot like last year, Northwestern, last year, Illinois,” Mathieu said. “We needed this and we came out and laid an egg. You would think having four seniors, five seniors, that we would learn from that and we didn’t. So he was really upset as he should be, as we all should be. We let one get away at home.”

Other notes:

**Andre Hollins scored 12 points and added six assists on Wednesday, but shot just 36.4 percent from the field overall and effectively ended a tear that had him averaging 21.3 points per game in the last eight. The senior guard went scoreless in the first half. “He didn’t have that kind of pop offensively where he was going by guys, attacking,” Pitino said. “Maybe their zone screwed him up, I’m not sure. But he’s been much more aggressive offensively in the past couple of games than he was tonight.”

**Mason got killed on a screen late in the second half and hit his head pretty hard on the floor. He looked a bit woozy when he got up, but stayed in the game, and drove to the basket afterward. He’ll be tested for any concussion symptoms today as a precaution. “I was a little bit dizzy and had a headache throughout the end of the game but I think I’ll be fine,” he said.

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