The Golden Gophers survived numerous scares in their first six games, all of which they were favored at home. Heading to Champaign, Ill., for their first Big Ten battle against a bigger, faster Illinois team would be a true litmus test. The result: A non-competitive effort that unveiled a handful of alarming deficiencies. It wasn’t a mystery that the Gophers might struggle against elite competition with such a new-look team that had looked disjointed in the non-conference season, but the depth of their issues may be more glaring than fans imagined. No. 13 Illinois won 92-65 and led by as many as 36 late in the second half.
“We weren’t great all around,” head coach Richard Pitino said in summary.
Handling the otherworldly strength of Kofi Cockburn was the A-topic for the Gophers coming in, but they failed that test. Center Liam Robbins logged his second foul at 16:28 of the first half, which set the table for Cockburn’s 33-point, 13-rebound night. Minnesota built an 18-10 lead early in the game but then went into freefall. Illinois outscored them 30-7 over the next 12 minutes as the Gophers went ice cold and Cockburn scored the majority of his 16 first-half points. Robbins wasn’t able to stick around long in the second half either, fouling out after just 16 minutes played.
Robbins has shown a fouling proclivity early in the season that could prove to be a hindrance against Big Ten big men, and Pitino said after the game he’ll need to work on his technique. It certainly put the Gophers behind the 8-ball against Illinois, who outscored the Gophers 48-14 in the paint. Cockburn bullied the likes of Jarvis Omersa, Eric Curry or whoever had the misfortune of switching onto him in the post. Not only that, the Gophers largely avoided setting foot in the paint in the first half, settling for four makes out of 14 three-point shots and a series of floaters and runners that clanked off the rim.
“We were still getting to the rim, just not finishing,” said point guard Marcus Carr, who finished with a team-high 16 points. “Then we were taking a bunch of outside shots that were allowing them to get out on the break and stuff like that.”
Choosing not to challenge Cockburn much down low kept the Illini big man fresh and out of foul trouble. It also put the onus on the Gophers to hit 3s, which they’ve struggled to do for several years. They entered the game 255th in the nation from beyond the arc (29.2%) and will likely drop after finishing 7-of-28. Gabe Kalscheur‘s shooting slump continued, and Both Gach had his most ineffective performance of the year, missing all nine of his field goals.
With Robbins on the bench, Kalscheur and Gach off-kilter and Carr getting repelled around the paint, Minnesota had no scoring threats. Their 27.5% shooting percentage for the game was their second-lowest mark since Basketball-Reference began tracking game-by-game data in 2010.
“We can’t rely all on three-point shots all the time,” Pitino said. “We’ve got to continue to get to the foul line, which I thought we did a decent job of, but we missed 12 of them.”
The Gophers were supposed to be a better offensive team than a year ago, but they are unbalanced when Robbins doesn’t make an impact. Curry, Omersa and Brandon Johnson are all fine players, but not even collectively do they appear able to replace the presence Minnesota lost when Daniel Oturu went to the NBA. And Robbins is still getting his bearings in the Big Ten against players like Cockburn, who is fiercer than any competition Robbins faced in the Missouri Valley last year.
Likewise, when Carr slows down, so do the Gophers. His 3-for-13 night resembled several of his performances from 2019-20 — high volume, low efficiency. He also has the ability to create in transition, but the Gophers scarcely had a fast-break opportunity, getting outscored 23-4 in transition.
Certain players were supposed to step up this year so Carr wasn’t alone as a scorer. Kalscheur was supposed to rediscover his freshman form, Tre Williams and Isaiah Ihnen were supposed to become valuable bench pieces, and Brandon Johnson was supposed to be the steadying grad transfer. Thus far, we haven’t seen those impacts.
Perhaps more alarmingly, the Gophers lacked the bluster to fight back in the second half as the Illini whooped it up on the bench in front of an audience of zero. Minnesota has an older team now, but age doesn’t always equal leadership. The Gophers needed more from their elder players Tuesday night, but instead they got overpowered and outclassed.
“It’s not really a confidence thing,” said Carr. “Sometimes when you’re on the road stuff doesn’t go your way.”