To open Big Ten play the Gophers lost to Ohio State on the road, 78-63, and Michigan State at home, 69-61. Minnesota was relatively competitive for portions of each game, but they weren't able to get over the hump, so to speak, in either. The Gophers hung tough for a half in Ohio State, but the Buckeyes created distance in the second half. When Michigan State visited the Barn without Denzel Valentine, they were vulnerable, but the Spartans survived and evened their conference record.
Let's take a look at both opening Big Ten games.
Ohio State 78, Minnesota 63
Minnesota only trailed by three at the half in their Big Ten opener. In the first half, Minnesota was 4-of-9 from three, and actually took 15 free throws, which is an indication of them being more aggressive on offense. When the Gophers play more aggressively and attack the basket, rather than settling for outside jumpers, they seem to be more successful offensively.
Unfortunately the second half was a different story. It's not that Minnesota played poorly, but Ohio State's offense was more efficient; the Buckeyes shot 64 percent in the second half, which allowed them to extend the lead. The Buckeyes led by as many as 19 points late in the second half. Ohio State dominated points in the paint (42-26), and out rebounded the Gophers 43-35. Perhaps Minnesota's lack of size, as to be expected, is becoming more of an issue as the competition becomes more fierce.
Carlos Morris led Minnesota with 18 points and six rebounds. Jordan Murphy (with 11) and Nate Mason (with 10) finished in double figures for the Gophers.
Michigan State 69, Minnesota 61
The Gophers played Michigan State tough throughout the game, but the Spartans staved off the upset bid. Looking at the numbers, the Gophers were out rebounded by 10 (43-33), but Minnesota managed to snag an impressive 16 offensive rebounds.
What the rebounding indicates is Minnesota's poor shooting night. As a team they shot 33 percent from the floor and had a pretty brutal stretch in the second half without a field goal. For almost eight minutes in the second half the Gophers didn't make a basket. Those stretches, which may happen occasionally this year, are difficult for this particular team to overcome. Mason had 16 points, and Murphy and Kevin Dorsey finished with 14 and 11 points respectively, but it wasn't enough to land the upset.
The Gophers competed in their first two Big Ten games and it's an indication that the team is playing with great effort. They're just a bit short on talent, depth and experience so far. There's still quite a bit of development and team building left to do, which was more or less expected for the Gophers this season.
Unfortunately, the Gophers offense seems to drag them down. In particular, this team is struggling to shoot and they keep going long stretches without baskets. In the Big Ten, those stretches can be paralyzing. Shooting isn't exactly something that can be fixed, either, as it'll just be a matter of them getting more comfortable in the offense and perhaps working for easier baskets. Because Minnesota is thin in the frontcourt, getting easier baskets isn't as simple as throwing it into the post and working inside out. Rather, they're going to have get drive and kick baskets and attack the rim more.
Pitino seems to have settled on an eight man rotation. Some guys will play more or less depending on the match up, but these are the eight typically playing in whatever combination. I guess, I'm saying that this is what Minnesota is working with this season. They won't win many Big Ten games, but if the team plays hard and improves, they'll be somewhat competitive. The Gophers have already built a deep enough hole that a postseason bid is a longshot, but they can still build towards the future this year.