Gophers scrambling after rough Big Ten start

Published 1:54 am Tuesday, January 13, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Golden Gophers looked at their schedule at the start of the season, they knew the opening two weeks of conference play was going to be a grind.

The reality of the situation has been even worse, with four straight losses to start the Big Ten putting them in quite a hole and saddling an unproven roster with a crisis of confidence.

“We’ve got to get our confidence back,” second-year coach Richard Pitino said on Monday. “These guys aren’t feeling great about themselves, understandably so. All it takes is a win to get you back.”

Email newsletter signup

After a fluffy non-conference got them off to an 11-2 start, the Gophers (11-6, 0-4) appear to have had a hard time adjusting to the step up in weight class that comes in the Big Ten. They lost at Purdue after leading by 11 at halftime, lost at Maryland, dropped a heartbreaker in overtime at home to Ohio State and then gave away a nine-point lead with eight minutes to play at Michigan on Saturday.

Now a team that started the season hoping to parlay last year’s NIT championship into a return to the NCAA tournament is faced with a huge challenge to claw back into the postseason picture. The Gophers have five of their next seven games at home, starting with one on Tuesday night against Iowa (11-5, 2-1) that is as close to a must-win as a game can get this early in the season.

After watching his team turn the ball over 17 times while blowing that big lead against the Wolverines, Pitino said on Monday he would make some changes to the starting lineup. He was still lamenting on Monday the unforced errors and “ridiculous” mistakes his players made to let that one slip away.

“We were watching the film and I didn’t yell,” Pitino said. “Guys were covering their eyes at points where they knew some of these things were coming up.”

The most yelling Pitino did was at assistant coach Ben Johnson late in the game against the Wolverines. Television cameras caught the young head coach berating his assistant, but Pitino brushed aside questions about it on Monday as a common occurrence in the heat of the moment.

“That happens on every (bench). Go to a Louisville game,” Pitino said with a chuckle, referring to the Cardinals team coached by his father, Rick Pitino.

He batted away a follow-up question as well.

“Next question,” Pitino said. “This is high-level, competitive stuff here.”

Sensing the group is a little shaken, Pitino said he hopes that a return to Williams Arena for five of the next seven games will help calm some nerves and help them refocus. He said he would make a few changes to the starting lineup and rotation in hopes of finding a spark, though he declined to say specifically who would go to the bench and who would step in.

One of the issues facing the Gophers is that they don’t have a star player who can take over when moments get tense. They have five players that average between 9.0 and 12.9 points per game, with senior guard Andre Hollins the closest thing they have to a go-to player. He scored 41 points against Memphis in 2012 and had 22 in a loss to Louisville this season, but his scoring average has dropped in each of the last three seasons.

“It’s totally unfair to Andre Hollins the expectations that have been put on him, in my opinion,” Pitino said. “Doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. He’s a good player. And he works hard and he does a lot of good things. He’s not an elite, elite player and I don’t think he’s ever going to be that. That’s not to say I don’t like him on my team. I do.”

Hollins has been bothered by a toe injury, but Pitino said that was no excuse for his uneven play this season.

“I’m not saying we don’t have talent,” Pitino said. “My point is we don’t have a star on this team. We hopefully can get a collection of really good ones to make the team the star and the sum being better than the parts.”