Golden Gophers fans likely knew some growing pains were in store after the basketball team lost three multi-year starters from last year’s March Madness qualifier, but the 2019-20 team’s 3-4 start to the season hasn’t inspired optimism with the opening Big Ten games fast approaching.
Minnesota lost 73-68 to the Big East’s Depaul Blue Demons (8-0) Friday afternoon, dropping their mark to 0-4 against power-conference opponents. Gabe Kalscheur had a three-point attempt blocked just before the buzzer that could’ve tied the game after Minnesota played from behind the entire second half.
“Clearly we’re close,” said Pitino after the team’s fourth single-digit loss of the year.
Like clockwork, the Gophers have had chances to win down the stretch in all four of their defeats, but with an inexperienced team, the “winning plays” that head coach Richard Pitino always references haven’t been present.
With the calendar soon turning to December, let’s look at what areas have given the Gophers trouble during their subpar start.
The Gophers had leads with 10 minutes remaining against Oklahoma and Butler… then the Sooners outscored them 23-11 the rest of the way, while the Bulldogs outscored them 26-17 to the finish.
Against Utah and Depaul, the Gophers failed to hold a second half lead but pulled within one point against both opponents and had opportunities to tie the game in the waning seconds that were poorly executed. In the Utah game, the Gophers failed to kick out a pair of offensive rebounds while trailing by three in the final seconds that could’ve resulted in open 3s — instead, they missed two putback attempts. In Friday’s Depaul loss, Kalscheur’s inability to get off a clean look out of a timeout nullified a clutch steal seconds before by freshman Bryan Greenlee.
It would seem to be part of the learning process for a team that features more new starters than returners and little experience off the bench besides role-playing senior Michael Hurt. Contrast this start to last year’s, where the seasoned Gophers won their first four single-digit games against Utah, Texas A&M, Washington and Oklahoma State to build confidence in the early season.
“You just kind of strip them all down and you take them one game at a time and you evaluate,” said Pitino. “You don’t lump all the losses together, you just look at Depaul.
“Every game’s a little bit different. It’s been some free-throw shooting at times. This game, specifically, I thought in the second half towards the end there was some loose balls we had, and we just didn’t get them.”
The Gophers had a decisive rebounding advantage in the first half, leading 26-19 on the glass at halftime, but Depaul closed the gap throughout the second half and recorded the last eight offensive rebounds of the game. Minnesota was minus-5 on the boards in the second half.
Pitino has asked for his guards to rebound better, but Payton Willis, Marcus Carr and Kalscheur combined for just 10 rebounds in over 100 combined minutes on Friday.
POOR SHOOTING VERSUS POWER-CONFERENCE OPPONENTS
Cleveland State, Central Michigan, North Dakota… no problem. The Gophers have handled their business against mid-majors, shooting 50% or better in three comfortable victories by 23 points or more. It’s been a different story in their four power-conference losses, where the Gophers have failed to exceed 40%.
While Minnesota is shooting appreciably more 3s than it did a year ago, they’re not enjoying success against stiffer competition. The Gophers are now 28.2% from 3 against their four best foes. They shot 32.6% from beyond the arc during last year’s Big Ten schedule.
“You have a different type of confidence in practice versus games,” sophomore Jarvis Omersa said. “There’s less pressure in practice, let’s put it that way.”
It doesn’t help that Gabe Kalscheur is off to a 33% shooting start from the field and 35% from 3. He went 3 for 13 from the floor against Depaul. Point guard Marcus Carr took fewer than 10 field goat attempts for the first time on Friday, going 2 for 9, but in his first six games he only exceeded 40% shooting once while taking 15 shots per game. Transfer Alihan Demir has been tepid, shooting 9 of 31 in the four losses.
The Gophers are seemingly trying to be a more efficient team than a year ago by maximizing the value of the 3-point line, but their alleged upgrades on the perimeter haven’t delivered to expectations.
“We’re certainly not telling them to just bomb up 3s,” Pitino said. “Obviously, take them if they’re open, but get into the paint, convert on the break, convert off of steals, convert off of stops.”
Minnesota combated their poor shooting in 2018-19 by getting to the line as well as any team in the country, attempting 24 free-throw attempts per game. This year’s group was held to 14 or fewer attempts in five of the first six games until they broke through with 30 attempts on Friday. Kalscheur hadn’t attempted a single free throw in the first five games.
And when they’ve reached the line, they haven’t been good. The Gophers are a woeful 59% from the line in their four losses and went 19 of 30 against Depaul, but only three different players attempted those free throws. Carr and Payton Willis didn’t reach the charity stripe.
“We have to for sure get to the free-throw line,” said Willis. “We have to convert when we get to the free-throw line. That was a problem tonight. But that’s a focus, getting to the free-throw line. Every game.”
DANIEL OTURU GETTING LITTLE HELP, BIG WORKLOAD
There’s not much about which to criticize sophomore big man Daniel Oturu. Well, other than a fumbled offensive rebound with 13 seconds left against Depaul on Friday.
It’s been a magnificent start to the season for Oturu, who’s finishing confidently at the rim, rebounding like a fiend and even adding an outside jumper (sometimes with mixed results). The Gophers’ four losses have hardly been his fault. He’s been the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in three of them and averaging 20 points and 14 boards against power-conference teams — a good indication he’ll be able to hold up well against Big Ten centers.
Oturu’s going to need more help, though, considering his monumental efforts haven’t translated to wins. Oturu is shooting 60% to start the season. The rest of the team is shooting 39%.
At the moment, Oturu is sustaining a huge workload at 37 minutes per game against power-conference teams. To his credit, Oturu has found a way to keep his fouls down and be involved down the stretch. But if Oturu continues to be a one-man show, Big Ten teams are going to scheme him into foul trouble once they realize Minnesota doesn’t have a viable backup. Eric Curry is out for the year with a knee injury, Demir at 6-foot-9 is not cut out to play the “5” spot in the Big Ten, and 6-foot-10 freshman Sam Freeman has scarcely played in the team’s blowout wins.
If Oturu can get more support from his wings, it could clear up many of the Gophers’ woes.