Suddenly the impending Big Ten schedule doesn’t seem like such a drudgery for Gophers basketball fans. In fact, might there be a hint of optimism coming from the Maroon and Gold faithful that was resigned to a lost season just two weeks ago?
The Gophers (7-5, 1-1) have won four of their last five games with wins over Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma State before finishing out the year with Saturday’s 89-62 drubbing of Florida International. Minnesota’s NET ranking was a respectable 28th coming into Saturday, better than 11-1 Indiana’s.
Why? A strength of schedule that’s been among the country’s most difficult.
“I feel like our confidence is at an all-time high, and just getting into this Big Ten play is going to be a lot of fun,” said sophomore Gabe Kalscheur. “We’re very excited for it. These past games, we’ve learned a lot from the beginning of the season, from those tough losses, but they made us a better.”
After floundering winnable opportunities versus Oklahoma (in Sioux Falls, S.D.), at Butler and at Utah, the Gophers had the look of a flappable team that didn’t have the right make-up to close out games against major-conference opponents. Convincing double-digit wins over their most recent three upper-tier foes have changed that narrative.
Against Clemson the Gophers showed some of their most efficient shooting of the season without being overly-reliant on the three-point shot. Against Ohio State they proved they could put together a full 40 minutes — and be the tougher team — against a highly-ranked opponent. Against Oklahoma State Gabe Kalscheur proved the whispers of his sophomore slump were overblown.
Now the Gophers can enter the heart of the Big Ten season without feeling like they need to play catch-up. The two-year-old NET ranking system, which weighs opponent quality, favors Minnesota because of its numerous road and neutral site games. Though the Gophers have five losses, all come from quality foes, which stings less. Entering Saturday, Depaul was 12-1, Butler was 11-1, Utah was 9-3, Iowa was 9-3 and Oklahoma was 8-3. That’s why the Gophers are the highest-ranked five-loss team in the NET by 16 spots (Wisconsin, 44th).
Pitino said their most recent loss helped them turn the corner. After losing by 20 at Iowa on Dec. 9, the Gophers have looked like a different team.
“Four of the five losses, you want to win them, but I wasn’t totally disappointed in the way we played in any of them,” Pitino said Saturday. “That Iowa game woke us up. We cannot sleepwalk through any performances. Obviously to beat two really, really good opponents and then a confident FIU team, we’re playing good basketball. But we certainly know that we’ve got 18 good opportunities moving forward and a bunch of them are Quad 1 win opportunities, so we’ll certainly be excited about that.”
Sophomore big man Daniel Oturu has been nothing short of outstanding from Game No. 1, playing as efficiently and consistently as any Gophers center in recent memory. But the team around him that struggled early on has rounded into form. With seven new faces on this year’s team, there was bound to be a growing pain or two — but also progress as the season went along.
Point guard Marcus Carr’s inefficient shooting remains problematic, but he was able to deliver his two best games of the season in December, including his stunning 35-point performance in the upset of Ohio State. Gabe Kalscheur was ice cold at 35% shooting through nine games, but he’s hitting at 55.6% in the last three victories with outputs of 15, 34 and 23 points. And transfer Alihan Demir has gone from 39% shooting in a rough-looking first six games to 45.9% the last half-dozen while averaging over five rebounds per game. The perimeter play has opened the door for further excellence from Oturu, who’s shooting a scalding 69.6% in his last six while rebounding the ball at a Jordan Murphy-like rate. He logged a 21-point, 20-rebound performance against FIU, a feat Murphy never accomplished despite his record-setting scoring and rebounding numbers.
“You’re looking at 8-for-12 like it’s no big deal,” Pitino said of Oturu’s efficiency. “He’s not missing a lot of shots. … He’s playing very, very efficiently, and what’s exciting is he could still get better at a lot of things.”
Meanwhile, Pitino has begun showing more faith in his bench, partially due to Payton Willis’s absence with an ankle injury. Freshmen Bryan Greenlee, Tre Williams and Isaiah Ihnen are starting to see more opportunities, while Michael Hurt and Jarvis Omersa have found ways to provide sparks off the bench with their leadership and energy, if not their offense.
If this year’s Big Ten is anything like last year’s Big Ten, there should be an anybody-can-beat-anybody expectation. That bodes well for an inexperienced team like the Gophers. In 2018-19, for instance, Minnesota beat three of the conference’s top six teams and lost to third-place Michigan at the buzzer on the road. Conversely, they lost to three of the conference’s bottom four teams and narrowly squeaked past 10th-place Penn State twice.
True to form in 2019-20, 12 of the conference’s 14 teams split their first two conference-opening games in mid-December, putting the Gophers in a 12-way tie for second place when they face Purdue on Jan. 2.
The cliche goes in sports that things are never as good as they seem or as bad as they seem. Fortunately for the Gophers, the latter seems to be true with regard to their shaky start.
“I feel like we’re still trying to solidify our identity,” Oturu said. “I think [the non-conference schedule]’s helped to improve a lot. I feel like we took those early losses as learning lessons and tried to find ways to work on stuff that didn’t work that would help us later down the stretch, and I think it’s kind of showing up.”