When will the Gophers basketball team figure out how to handle a zone defense?
That’s one of the biggest questions Richard Pitino had to answer after Monday’s 68-56 loss at Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The opponents won’t get any easier in the next few games with Oklahoma State on Friday in the U.S. Bank Stadium Classic. The early Big Ten season starts with Ohio State on the road Sunday and Nebraska at home next Wednesday.
Pitino thought his team wasn’t that far off from competing against the Eagles, who were up 16 points in the second half and held Minnesota to 29.2 percent shooting from the field for the game Monday night.
Here are some of my takeaways from the first loss of the season:
Murphy’s aggressiveness: If the Gophers make the NCAA tournament this season, it will be because Jordan Murphy has a big senior year. So far so good from a rebounding standpoint (leading the Big Ten with Murphy hasn’t had the same start as last season when he was the top scorer and rebounder in the Big Ten in the first month of the season, but he took control offensively at times Monday against Boston College. He scored 11 of his team-high 16 points in the first half. He also went 5-for-5 from the free throw line, which was a significant improvement from him shooting at a 62 percent clip entering the game. Foul trouble limited Murphy to less than nine minutes in the second half when Boston College ran away with the victory. He was able to find Gabe Kalscheur on a cross court pass in the corner spotting up for a three-pointer. His passing skills are the best they’ve been in his career, ranking 10th in the Big Ten and tops on the team with 3.7 per game.
Limiting turnovers: Before the Gophers could even put their first points on the board at Conte Forum, they had one turnover on the stat sheet. A post entry pass by Amir Coffey was stolen. The result was a Boston College three-pointer to open Minnesota’s first road game of the season. Not a great start, but taking care of the ball did get a better moving forward. For the second time in six games this season, the Gophers committed fewer than 10 turnovers. They even had just four turnovers in the second half Monday night.
Early adversity: It’s a weird to include this among the good things that happened against Boston College, but there weren’t too many positives to list. Ha. Seriously, this loss could be a blessing in disguise, especially coming before the Big Ten season. The Gophers were riding high at 5-0. Feeling good about themselves and the fact they beat some quality opponents Texas A&M and Washington to win the Vancouver Showcase. The last-second, game-winning three-pointer from Gabe Kalscheur followed by a return home for Thanksgiving dinner. Talk about being in cloud nine for a couple days. Now Minnesota’s players, especially the freshmen have come back down to earth. They realize what it’s like to play a true road game and taste for the first time what it’s like to lose at the college level. How they respond will say a lot about this team.
Shooting without confidence: Pitino said on his radio show Tuesday that he counted 26 uncontested shots the Gophers missed against Boston College after watching video, which included three-pointers, missed layups and a couple dunks. It wasn’t just a couple guys having an off night. Everyone contributed to the misery on offense. And this has been a disturbing trend in the last four games with Minnesota shooting 36 percent from the field (86-for-239) during that stretch. Dupree McBrayer was scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting from the field. Starters Amir Coffey, Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur were a combined 10-for-28 from the field. Pitino mentioned that he thought Oturu lost confidence after missing two dunks and close shots against the Eagles. The 6-foot-10 former four-star recruit shot just 1-for-6 in the second half, but it’s expected for him to have some freshman moments. The experience he gets from starting in place of recovering big man Eric Curry could prove to be valuable during Big Ten play.
Foul trouble: Murphy’s supporting cast this season is several levels above where it was last season, but there’s still a significant drop off, especially at power forward when he goes to the bench in foul trouble. Boston College’s 24-10 run to pull away in the second half Monday happened primarily when Murphy had to sit after picking up his third and fourth fouls with 12:27 left in the game. The Gophers were down 58-44 when he fouled out with 5:33 to play. Freshman Jarvis Omersa always plays with energy and typically is the best leaper on the floor, but he isn’t ready to be a factor offensively. Junior Michael Hurt is more of shooting threat, but his minutes have been limited. The only scoring inside presence off the bench is 7-foot senior Matz Stockman, but he went scoreless in just six minutes. Oturu and Murphy were the victims of a couple suspect calls from officials, but they made some careless mistakes as well picking up early fouls. This is a completely different team when both of them are on the bench.
Deflections down: Before the Gophers won the Vancouver Showcase, Pitino’s last blog evaluated player performance from the Utah victory. One of the most notable observations he made dealt with how his team was not meeting deflection goals. They only recorded 24 deflections, falling short of the goal of 35. Although Pitino hasn’t posted a blog about the Boston College loss my guess is the U’s deflections are possibly the fewest this season in a game. Minnesota finished with just one blocked shot and four steals Monday. The defensive intensity and effort was lacking, especially inside with the Eagles winning the rebounding battle 44-37 and scoring 36 points in the paint. Shakopee native Steffon Mitchell grabbed a team-best 13 rebounds. Backup center Nik Popovic had a team-best 18 points on 9-for-9 shooting from the field. Popovic was able to get deep post position several times and couldn’t be stopped at the rim. Offensive issues are harder to solve since the changes might need to come schematically, but defensive improvement can be made with better effort and more communication.