By the time the media left the Gophers men’s basketball locker room at Williams Arena on Saturday evening, it was all but empty. The players, toting cups of mac and cheese and sullen faces, filed out into the cold quickly and quietly.
The weight of another 0-4 start to Big Ten play — and the pressure to avoid matching last year’s 0-5 start when the Gophers visit Nebraska on Tuesday — is palpable now.
“You’re going to get beaten down [when you lose] because there are so many eyeballs on your program,” coach Richard Pitino said. “It’s the way sports work. You play like that, people are going to get on you, they’re going to get on me, which they should.”
But although he has preached about positivity in those moments as well-being continually “creative and innovative,” Pitino is also not one to shake the board for the sake of change. As much as anything, the 33-year-old is staunchly standing by what he and the Gophers (6-10 overall) have done all year.
“There’s not going to be, in my opinion, some magic trick thing that I can do to get them to all of a sudden flip the switch,” Pitino said. “I think they’ve got to understand and trust what they’re doing on the court, believe in each other and it will turn around.”
Every coach has different ideas about what to do when adversity hits and players get tight. Saturday, after Northwestern crushed the Gophers 77-52, third-year Wildcats coach Chris Collins reflected on his own team’s struggles a year earlier, when they were bogged in a 10-game conference losing streak. His strategy then was to shift and tweak constantly in order to keep things fresh.
“You’ve got to get the small victories, even if you’re not getting wins,” Collins said. “That’s what I tried to do last year. I tried to find small ways we were improving to keep the morale up. Obviously, when you’re going through it you’ve got to try some different things. Maybe different lineups, different practice methods. Those are just things I did, but at the end of the day there is no exact science of getting through it.”
The Gophers have their own ideas. Part of that means players holding each other accountable and tuning out negativity, Pitino said.
Senior Joey King declared he has “left the Internet” in order to avoid the inevitable backlash, focusing instead on internal critiques. Saturday, he voiced concerns about the team’s out-of-game effort, saying he and his teammates weren’t challenging themselves enough in practice and were building false confidence.
King also said while the team doesn’t have much time for meeting away from the court — it’s “eat, sleep, basketball” right now, he said — they did come together for a players-only meeting near the end of the nonconference schedule.
“We kept it real with each other, but obviously we haven’t stepped up to the plate yet,” he said. “That’s not the biggest thing in my comfort zone [to initiate], but if need be, we’ll probably do it again.”
Pitino, meanwhile, said this year, he has relied heavily on individual meetings with players to gauge their mindsets and learn more about how to motivate them. He has kept the starting lineup the same since the last game of the nonconference schedule, saying he doesn’t see any compelling reason to change it now.
“I don’t think lineup changes are the answer,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one specific guy. There is nobody that shouldn’t be doing better.”
And Pitino has been careful to point out small successes with players when he sees something he likes while going over film. But at the same time, he’s not brimming with good vibes if he doesn’t see cause.
“They’ve also got to understand when they’re unsuccessful, why,” he said. “So you want to be positive, but they’ve got to give you things to feel positive about.
“They’re letting the elements take away from their spirit a little bit. Certainly, that’s part of playing major college basketball — that’s the way it works. When you’re in the Big Ten and you’re not playing well, people are going to let you know about it. That’s just the way it works. You’ve got to block out the noise, trust in what you’re doing and believe in yourself.”