The ups and downs that come with any basketball season has the Minnesota Golden Gophers currently experiencing the latter aspect after two consecutive conference losses. While they’re only one-and-a-half games behind co-leaders Maryland and Wisconsin, they still find themselves in a five-way tie for sixth place in the Big Ten.
Entering the team’s January 11 game at Michigan State, the Golden Gophers appeared to be moving forward within their competitive conference by earning a spot in the Top 25 rankings. However, they were effectively shut down against the underachieving Spartans before then stumbling to a 52-50 defeat at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions last Saturday.
That sent them hurtling toward a potential do-or-die home contest against Wisconsin on January 21, with a victory having become absolutely necessary in order to remain a viable contender. Another loss could very well relegate the team to thinking about an NIT bid in March.
Minnesota’s loss at Penn State was particularly aggravating because the Golden Gophers appeared to be in control of the game as the second half began and held them to 30 percent shooting from the field for the game.
Three minutes into the latter portion of the contest, Minnesota held a 35-24 lead after Jordan Murphy’s dunk, then watched the Nittany Lions put together a 15-3 run to take a 39-38 advantage with just under 10 minutes left in the game.
At the six-minute mark, the Golden Gophers held a 46-42 lead, and with just under three minutes left, the margin was still three at 48-45. Everything then fell apart as Penn State tied the game at 50 with 1:25 remaining, then controlled the ball for most of the final minute. That was due to their board domination down the stretch, which allowed for a pair of offensive rebounds that led to clinching free throws with six seconds left.
That problem in the rebounding department was especially evident in the loss in East Lansing, yet was likely forgotten during the first half success in State College. The stinging effect of that weakness makes Minnesota’s play in the paint one of the main areas to focus on against Wisconsin on Saturday.
Two players that Golden Gophers’ head coach Richard Pitino and his staff need to neutralize in the area of rebounds are the Badgers' starting forwards, sophomore Ethan Happ and senior Nigel Hayes. Happ is hauling down over nine rebounds every game and Hayes is cleaning the glass for an additional five to help keep pace with the Terrapins of Maryland.
Minnesota has dropped their last two games against Wisconsin in Williams Arena and can’t afford to make it three. Luckily, Wisconsin is a bit banged up following a victory over Michigan on Tuesday. That’s because a pair of games against Maryland are still on the docket, along with the rematch on the road against the Badgers in the final regular season game on March 5. That latter game is in a place where the Golden Gophers have only won once in their last 18 tries.