Yes, the Gophers are in the midst of a nine game losing streak and yes, they're still looking for their first conference win. But there's still reason for optimism, especially considering the last two games against Michigan and Illinois. Perhaps Richard Pitino has learned a few encouraging things about his team over the last week.
This team definitely isn't supposed to compete for a Big Ten title, nor is it expected to make the NCAA tournament. Signs of improvement, consistent effort and future promise are reasonable expectations. This year has been ugly and will continue to be on the win-loss side, but there have been some positives this season at least.
Offense, Perimeter Shooting
The Gophers haven't shot the ball well this year at all, but they figured something out against Illinois. In the second half the Gophers shot 45 percent overall, 43 percent from three. Now Minnesota doesn't have a traditional post presence that can draw double teams and generate open threes. But inside-out three-pointers tend to be higher percentage shots. In their own way, the Gophers are finally getting inside-out jumpers and it's helped their offense as of late.
This Minnesota team penetrated and kicked against the Fighting Illini. Freshman Dupree McBrayer struggled shooting against Illinois (1-for-7), but he started driving and kicking to open shooters (8 assists). His, and others, effective penetration and vision helped Gopher shooters catch with their feet set, and miraculously, shots started falling.
Youth Movement, Learning Experiences
Minnesota hasn't been getting blown out. Playing in closer games, like the last two, will help them learn what it takes to win a road game (Michigan) and finish a close game (Illinois). Pitino's playing a ton of freshman this year; this we know. And they're making progress. Kevin Dorsey had a huge stretch to end a 6-0 Illinois run in the first half. For such a young player, he has also been steady at the point when Nate Mason sits.
Dupree McBrayer isn't shooting the ball well, but contributes on defense and with his ability to attack the basket opens up opportunities for himself and others. McBrayer had a couple tough turnovers in overtime and was clearly upset about it. He had played so well though (and really didn't turn the ball over all game until the end). At this point, McBrayer is at his best when he attacks the rim and he did that effectively against Illinois.
Jordan Murphy will be a star, and a huge future piece for the program. Murphy's the key to Minnesota playing small because he can guard and rebound bigger than his size. His foul trouble has been an issue, but in time he'll learn to defend without fouling. Murphy really elevates effectively for rebounds with two hands. Sometimes it looks like he's still on his way up when he clutches the ball. He can also finish among taller defenders and shields defenders with his body.His flashes of brilliance should have Gopher fans excited.
On Court Leadership
The contributions of Nate Mason thus far shouldn't be overlooked. He's been taking on a larger scoring role (25 points against Michigan, and 19 points against Illinois). For Minnesota to have any success this year, he'll need to shoulder a larger scoring load and he's been doing that. He's not a super vocal guy during games, but against Illinois Mason encouraged younger teammates and showed emotion. Pitino, and the other coaches, can't be the only leaders; a few on the roster will need to emerge. Just a sophomore, Nate Mason looks to be finding his voice as a leader.
I hope the Gophers continue to play hard through their recent losing streak. They've been tighter defensively and have started moving the ball inside-out for open jumpers as of late, both signs of showing improvement.
Purdue, Indiana, Iowa and Maryland loom on the upcoming schedule, which means wins will be scarce. The season's absolutely lost from a post-season perspective, but it's definitely not lost from a development perspective. And if the last two games are any indication, the Gophers will continue to show positive development. Now the only question is if they can start to win some games.