Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
Let’s be clear, this was not an upset.
But the nature of Minnesota’s 68-64 loss to Rutgers Sunday will frustrate fans as the Gophers’ NCAA Tournament hopes continue to fade.
Despite their 5-11 Big Ten mark coming in, Rutgers was deservedly favored to win by 1.5 points. In their last four games, they had lost at Illinois by five (Minnesota lost by 27 in Champaign), beat Northwestern on the road, lost on a buzzer beater against No. 21 Iowa and lost by 11 at Michigan State (Minnesota lost by 24 in East Lansing). The Gophers came in with one road win in eight tries and losers of five out of six.
In a conference with as much parity as it’s ever had, Rutgers — and its reputation as a Big Ten doormat — had every reason to expect a win Sunday night against the struggling Gophers. Once again, the Gophers dropped a conference road game that came down to the final possessions, and they lost their fifth Big Ten game when holding a lead in the second half.
Here are the main takeaways:
- For a second straight game, the Gophers shot 50 percent from the foul line. That’s no formula to win close games in the tightly-contested Big Ten. It predictably came down to free throws as Jordan Murphy, with a chance to tie it, missed two out of three shots after getting fouled on a 3-pointer with five seconds left. Meanwhile, Rutgers hit 11 of their final 12 from the line, including two from Caleb McConnell to ice it after Murphy’s misses. Daniel Oturu was Minnesota’s bright spot shooting free throws (6 of 7), but he missed his lone attempt of the night with 43 seconds remaining and a chance to tie the game at 64. The Gophers have gone five straight games without shooting better than 70 percent at the line.
- Perhaps the most egregious sequence of play came early in the second half after the Gophers had taken a game-high nine-point lead at 37-28. Their next six offensive possessions produced two missed free throws by Curry and five turnovers, two by Curry. Minnesota had little luck trying to dribble penetrate against the defensively savvy Scarlet Knights, likely keeping them from driving and dishing for 3-point attempts, which were actually falling for the shooting-starved Gophers Sunday night (8 of 14). Curry, McBrayer and Coffey were stripped on dribble drives near the paint during the sequence, leading to Rutgers rushes down the floor as the Scarlet Knights tied the game quickly at 37 with 16:10 to go. From that point on, no team had greater than a five-point lead.
- The atrophying of the Gophers’ bench is becoming a major problem, and it bottomed out against Rutgers. Eric Curry, Brock Stull and Isaiah Washington failed to score a point, marking the fifth straight game where the bench has failed to break double figures. Curry hasn’t looked the same since he missed time with a calf strain, Stull has been hesitant to shoot all season despite his track record as a 3-point specialist, and Washington continues to get pulled early after poor sequences. Junior Michael Hurt is seemingly out of the rotation. Pitino acknowledged his frustration with this issue last week, but are there any strings left to pull? Part of the Gophers’ slump can be attributed to the fact that they essentially are down to five players who can score, making them easier to scout and simpler to shut down if foul trouble arises.
- Lost in the defeat will be Gabe Kalscheur’s 6-of-6 3-point shooting effort, which kept the Gophers in the game early when their posts were struggling against the physical Rutgers front court. Jordan Murphy was bottled up against Eugene Omoruyi, who wasn’t available for the teams’ first meeting in January, but Kalscheur’s 5-of-5 beyond-the-arc shooting in the first half helped stake Minnesota to a 35-28 halftime lead. The Scarlet Knights didn’t allow the freshman many looks in the second half, however, and Kalscheur was forced to spend extra time on the bench with foul trouble. Nonetheless, his five 3s in the first half were the most since Andre Hollins accomplished it in 2015 against Rutgers.
- Does Minnesota have any hope left for the Big Dance? Things look bleak now that the Gophers have let winnable road games against Nebraska and Rutgers slip away, leaving them with contests @ Northwestern, vs Purdue and @ Maryland to end the season. Winning two of three seems mandatory to have a shot at an at-large bid, otherwise the Gophers may need a Big Ten Tournament run to salvage their once-promising season.