We're less than a week away from a possible 0-14 vs. 0-14 Big Ten matchup. Rutgers still must lose to Penn Stateand Minnesota, to hold up its end of the bargain, needs to lose at Maryland on Thursday. Rutgers has lost 12 straight, Minnesota 14. But, the ugly records only tell part of the story.
Rutgers has been blown out a bunch this season. (They've lost to Purdue by 50, Michigan State by 34, Maryland by 25, Nebraska by 24 and Wisconsin by 22.) On the other hand, Minnesota has only four double digit losses (in the current losing funk). Strangely, Northwestern has owned the Gophers this year, beating them by 25 and 24 points in two games, but that's as bad as it has been so far.
I'm sharing this because Minnesota has been in games late, within striking distance at least. But, the Gophers haven't been able to close.
Playing from Behind
The Gophers always seem to be in a position where they're chasing the opponent. So, it's simple, right? Just start getting the lead earlier in games, and build a cushion. This way, Minnesota plays from a position of strength, rather than having to scratch back into games.
That hasn't exactly worked either because Minnesota led Illinois at home, but couldn't get to the finish line. (The game went to overtime, and Illinois ran away with it, but we'll have more on this game later.) Granted, the team hasn't led in crunch much, if at all, outside of Illinois.
Still, the Gophers could emphasize faster starts. Who knows? It's probably already a point of emphasis, and easy to say, tough to do. But, they have such difficult mountains to climb in second halves, and thus far, those mountains have been insurmountable.
Crunch Time Execution
With a young team, it's obvious they aren't going to execute perfectly in the last minutes of a close game. Youth and inexperience has reared itself when it matters most in games.
Take Iowa as an example, the Gophers have the ball trailing by less than five on several trips. However, during one stretch, Kevin Dorsey drives into traffic, and finds Joey King for an open corner three. Dorsey demonstrates great vision, and good decision-making, even though King misses the shot. Then, defensively, the Gophers give up a dunk to a cutting Jarrod Uthoff, and on their subsequent offensive possession, Dorsey drives into traffic again, but this time has his shot blocked, resulting in a turnover. The open corner three by King is a solid play, but the rest of the execution is lacking.
Against Illinois, the Gophers actually had a lead but couldn't close and then were blown out in overtime. They've also had late-game chances against Indiana (twice) and Michigan (twice). These are all great learning opportunities, and teaching moments. For their growth and development, it'd be good for them to successfully close a game.
A little earlier, I mentioned the youth. Richard Pitino has shuffled his crunch time lineup depending upon the matchups, but it has mostly been a sophomore (Nate Mason) and two or three freshman (Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, Kevin Dorsey). Bakary Konate, another young guy, finished the game against Iowa, mainly because someone had to check Adam Woodbury.
Especially for the guards, that's a lot of responsibility. Dorsey, McBrayer and Mason have to be smart playmakers, and Murphy needs to feed off their penetration and make himself offensively available. All have shown flashes of potential late in games, and they've all made mistakes (like Dorsey against Iowa).
Nate Mason has taken, and needs to continue taking, a stronger leadership role, especially late in games. He's the steadiest playmaker, and someone who can get his shot, but also create for others. Mason also doesn't appear afraid of the moment.
I'm not sure that a win against Rutgers really means anything, other than not getting embarrassed by being the only winless Big Ten team. Losing but not getting blown out, ultimately will help the growth and development of a young team. But, at some point, the Gophers need to turn the corner.