Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
The narrative is getting redundant for Gophers fans who’ve clung to the hope that this 2018-19 team would come out of its offensive hibernation.
There was optimism that Saturday’s 84-63 win over Indiana marked a turning point, but Groundhog Day came again versus Michigan as the Gophers saw their proverbial shadow, retreating back into the depths of shooting despair amidst a deflating 69-60 loss to No. 7 Michigan.
Never mind the respectable final score. The Gophers didn’t hit the urgency button until they trailed by 20. (And it was a 16-point game with 1:30 to go.) Minnesota went 1 of 10 from 3-point range and narrowly avoided their worst shooting performance in a year full of notable clunkers.
It turned out Minnesota’s best chance to knock off the Top 10 team came in Ann Arbor, when they lost 59-57 on a floater from Charles Matthews at the buzzer. In that game the Gophers played a brilliant defensive first half but succumbed to the Wolverines’ efficient offense and stifling defense in the second half. The same was basically true Thursday night, only Minnesota’s offense never gave it a chance. The Gophers put forth their low-scoring first half of the season and trailed 28-18 at halftime, getting outscored 6-4 in the final 7:23 of the first half when they should’ve been chopping into the deficit.
That’s when the defensive malaise set in. The game got away in the opening eight minutes of the second half, nixing any daydreams that students had of storming the court against their Big Ten rival.
“Obviously there are stretches of the game where there’s a stalemate with scoring,” said Jordan Murphy. “That’s something that we just need to learn from on film and just see that we need to take advantage of those moments and break through when we need to.”
Michigan led by double figures after a cold shooting display in the first half. Predictably, John Beilein’s team awoke as NCAA-Tournament-hero Jordan Poole and established-Gophers-killer Jon Teske daggered them multiple times from beyond the arc.
Minnesota’s eight-point deficit at 28-20 turned to an 18-point differential in 3 minutes, 7 seconds of game time. It grew as high as 21 before the Gophers offered any resistance.
And it wasn’t the first time that offensive frustrations have led to defensive miscues. In fact, the same theme has been echoed after all three home losses this season: Maryland, Wisconsin and now Michigan — three of the Big Ten’s toughest foes.
“It felt like a couple of our other losses,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “It felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders and we couldn’t get out of our own way.
“It was just one of those things tonight where we totally let our offense effect everything else.”
The Gophers have not shown the knack for winning defensive battles, notching just one conference victory this year where they scored under 65 points. Meanwhile, Michigan has won five Big Ten games when scoring 65 or fewer.
There’s a reason they are the conference’s top scoring defense and the third-best in the nation.
They can also shoot from distance, which means they could vie for a title just a few miles from Williams Arena in early April at U.S. Bank Stadium. They made 12 (!) more 3s than Minnesota on Thursday night, while the Gophers made three or fewer 3s for the eighth time this season. That’s happened only twice to Michigan.
The Gophers bigs came to play. Jordan Murphy (18 points, 15 rebounds) and Daniel Oturu (18 points, 12 rebounds) notched double-doubles, while the rest of the team shot 25.7 percent. There’s no need to incriminate Murphy or Oturu after Thursday — only that they aren’t shooters. Watching Teske, however, operate on the perimeter for the Wolverines gave Gophers faithful a glimpse at what they covet but can’t have.
At one point, Oturu — who, in fairness, has begun to refine his mid-range jumper — had to be coaxed by the crowd to shoot from the free-throw line. On the other end, the 7-foot-1 Teske knocked down two straight 3s with under five minutes to go to foil any inkling of a Gophers comeback.
“It is a big weapon,” said Beilein. “I know if I see [an opponent’s] got a shooting ‘5’ I go, ‘Oh, man.’ That’s just hard to guard.”
In an increasingly position-less sport, the Gophers are thoroughly positioned, to coin a term. As relentless as their forwards have been down low, they’re not helping spread the floor for the guards, who continue their regression. Early in the second half Gabe Kalscheur, Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey were a combined 0 for 15 from the floor.
The Gophers power forward and center are unlikely to become marksmen overnight. The team’s guards? They are capable of a bounceback. But as a whole, the Gophers can control effort on the defensive end and do better than allowing an opponent to shoot 54 percent in the second half at home.
If they can’t beat good teams on their home floor, how will they fare against them in a neutral NCAA Tournament game?
“I thought we were ready to roll, and then I just thought we got cold,” said Pitino. “It’s hard when that ball’s not going in the basket, it deflates you, and you’ve got to get tougher, and you’ve got to dig in.”