Richard Pitino never saw this coming. He never expected the Gophers to struggle shooting the ball as much as they have this season, especially in Big Ten Conference play.
Entering Sunday’s game at last-place Northwestern, the Gophers (12-13, 6-9) are last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (39.4 percent) and three-point percentage (27.6) in league games.
Like anyone that plays the game of basketball, you get discouraged when you're not making shots. Pitino understands that happens, but it has sunk his entire team's confidence during a recent three-game losing streak
“You want to make shots,” Pitino said Saturday. “They equate playing well with making shots. When you have a lot of guys shooting low percentages, especially from the three-point line they don’t have a tendency of pointing fingers. It’s not that type of group. They’re really good kids and they want to win. But they kind of get in their own head.”
It doesn’t matter whether opponents have struggled defensively or not in the past. Pitino’s team hasn’t been able to get any confidence going offensively against anyone lately. Will that disturbing trend change to help snap a three-game losing streak Sunday?
The last two games were a sign of how bad offense can turn into even worse defense down the stretch. They were outscored 11-0 in a 58-51 loss against Iowa in the last 5:25. They were blanked again 8-0 in the last two-plus minutes while falling 68-56 against Indiana on Wednesday, which included shooting 26.7 percent in the second half (2-for-14 from three).
“What young players got to understand is if you get down on yourself that hurts the team,” Pitino added. “The team needs everybody, regardless of if you’re 10-for-10 from the field or 0-for-10 from the field. The team needs you present and locked in on the next play, making the right next play. It’s hard. That’s hard for everybody. Because when you’re struggling, you got to get over yourself and into the team. That’s what we always say.”
In the five losses in six games, the Gophers are shooting just 34.9 percent from the field (106 for 304) and 22.3 percent from three (27 for 121). It also didn’t help to shoot just 16-for-31 from the free throw line in the last two losses.
The Gophers’ leading scorer Daniel Oturu is averaging 19.6 points on 56.5 percent shooting this season. But he was held to 26 points combined on 11-for-28 shooting (39.3 percent) in the last two games against Iowa and Indiana. Second-leading scorer Marcus Carr is averaging 15 points, but he had just 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting vs. Iowa and 12 points on 3-for-19 shooting vs. Indiana. The Gophers are just 3-9 this season when Carr scores 12 points or fewer, but he wants to get Oturu more involved in key points in the game.
“We need to take advantage of whatever advantage he has down there,” Carr said about Oturu. “Trying to throw it into him and get it into the spots he likes – just let him go to work.”
Pitino would also like to see Oturu and his frontcourt play better defensively. Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis (27 points and 16 rebounds) and Iowa’s Luka Garza (24 points) carved them up recently.
“Everybody needs to be able to shut down these bigs,” Pitino said. “As remarkable a year offensively as Daniel’s had, we’ve always allowed other big guys to have their way with us … For a big guy, he plays so many minutes and he’s giving us a lot. I know he wants to win, but he needs to continue to grow. Get as physical as you can. Keep attacking, keep taking what they give you and defensively just keep trying to shut down the other guys.”