As another winnable Big Ten game slipped away from the Minnesota Golden Gophers Wednesday night — a 56-51 slugfest against rival Wisconsin — a familiar wart sullied an otherwise good defensive performance. With the regular season three-quarters complete, the most problematic aspect of this Gophers team has become an unfortunate part of its identity.
The Gophers have a shooting problem, and it could cost them a spot in the Big Dance.
Wednesday’s 1-for-13 showing beyond the arc was remarkably unsurprising. It was their ninth game this year shooting 25 percent or worse from 3-point range, the most in the Big Ten. Out of all major-conference teams, only Wake Forest and Georgia Tech have a lower 3-point percentage than the Gophers’ 30.4 mark. Minnesota sunk to 324th out of 353 with their clunker at Williams Arena, surrounded in the Division I rankings by teams like Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Kennesaw State and Stetson.
“We went cold,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “I thought we got some good looks. We just couldn’t hit them, so credit to [Wisconsin].”
Gabe Kalscheur made a 3-pointer to start the scoring for Minnesota in the first half. They missed their next 13 from distance. On perhaps the game’s most important possession, Jordan Murphy snared two offensive rebounds and kicked them out to Kalscheur and Dupree McBrayer for open 3s. Both clanked off the rim when a make would’ve brought the Gophers within a point late in the second half. Instead, the Badgers coasted rather comfortably down the stretch, getting a timely 3 of their own from D’Mitrik Trice with under two minutes remaining.
Minnesota is now 3 of 29 from 3 in their last two Big Ten games. They shot 2 of 16 at Purdue in a 10-point loss on Sunday. The Boilermakers struggled themselves, shooting 5 of 24, but still outscored the Gophers by nine points beyond the arc. In five Big Ten games, Minnesota has shot below 25 percent from 3. They are 1-4 in those contests with the lone win a one-point squeaker at home over winless Penn State.
From the earliest signs of shooting trouble, Pitino has refrained that he likes the shot quality (with the 5-of-30 effort at Boston College being an exception). He voiced his support for the shot selection again on Wednesday, though Murphy thought the repeated misses affected the team on the defensive end. There was the same lament after a home loss against Maryland, where the Gophers shot 9 of 23 from the free-throw line.
“I think one miss led to another,” he said. “I think we got in our heads a little bit down the stretch on the offensive end and let that affect our defense and rebounding.”
And what about the team’s appointed shooters? Kalscheur was asked if there is concern over the extended cold stretch.
“Shooters are going to have cold nights,” said Kalscheur, “so we’ve just got to get back out there next game, get back in the lab and get repetitions.”
The freshman, Kalscheur, has been the Gophers’ most reliable shot at 36.2 percent from outside. Minnesota’s bigs, however, struggle outside of the paint. The foursome of Murphy, Daniel Oturu, Eric Curry and Michael Hurt are a combined 6 of 36 from outside (17 percent).
That leaves the 3-point onus on the remaining guards: Amir Coffey, McBrayer and, to some extent, Isaiah Washington — all of whom have regressed.
Coffey is having his best scoring season, but his 3-point percentage has dropped to a career-low 29.2 percent (from 36.8 last year). McBrayer also sits at 29.2 percent, his lowest mark since 2015-16 (he was 40.9 percent as a sophomore). Washington has dropped from 24.1 percent his freshman year to 21.4 as a sophomore.
The cliche that poor shooting can be contagious rang true against Wisconsin.
“It felt like it [was contagious] a little bit tonight,” said Pitino. “At the end of the day, we’ve shot well in this building. We’ve just got to continue to take good shots. I thought Gabe and Dupree, I thought they took good shots. Even Amir had a couple good ones. They just didn’t fall tonight.”
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Minnesota is shooting 32.1 percent at home in Big Ten play, slightly above their season average. Five of their remaining eight games, though, are on the road, where they are 23.6 percent in the Big Ten.
The outside struggles have affected Minnesota’s inside game, which revolves around Murphy. With bigs that aren’t a threat to shoot, it’s up to the guards to open the floor for them. That’s not happening, creating a more congested front court through which Murphy must navigate.
“If you can’t hit 3-point shots to space the court,” said Pitino, “it’s going to be hard for everybody.”
Murphy has drastically improved as a passer this season, which should encourage the Gophers to attempt more inside-out actions. Of their 13 attempts on Wednesday, 10 were initiated from the perimeter — most on either ball-handoff or screen-and-roll actions. On three attempts (two by McBrayer, one by Washington), there was no off-ball action to initiate the play. On several sets that started with an action intended to create space, Coffey and Kalscheur wound up putting the ball on the floor and shooting off the dribble — presumably tougher than a catch-and-shoot.
Three attempts came off Murphy’s offensive rebounds, which provided good looks. But none of the 13 attempts were generated from an intentional pass from a big (it didn’t help that Minnesota kept turning the ball over on post-entry passes thanks to Ethan Happ’s length). The Gophers also got very little guard penetration that could have led to kick-outs for better looks, falling back into the familiar weave along the arc. When Minnesota’s guards decide to put their heads down, they often look to get the rim and create free-throw opportunities — but driving with the intent to pass should be an option.
It would be a stretch to say the majority of Minnesota’s 3-pointers Wednesday night came fluidly within the offense. The Gophers need to go back to the drawing board to find better looks and at least get the Coffey/McBrayer tandem back to their career average. Not only is the Gophers’ lack of shooting leading to losses, but its hurting the team’s efficiency — a metric that may separate bubble teams in the eyes of the tournament committee.
“We finish with a lot of tough games,” said Pitino. “So just figure out what we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right and learn and grow from it. I think there’s a lot of things we did well, but we’ve got to be able to be disciplined for 40 minutes.”
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