Gophers moving on from tough loss at Nebraska

Amir Coffey ran the other direction in anger and disbelief after getting called for a foul on James Palmer with 1.1 seconds left at Nebraska Wednesday night.

Palmer calmly sank both free throws, and the Cornhuskers escaped with a 62-61 win over Minnesota. Nebraska ended a seven-game losing streak, while the Gophers had their current losing skid extended to four games. Gophers coach Richard Pitino ran the official who called the foul on Coffey off the court, and voiced his displeasure.

Pitino said Friday he got an explanation for the questionable officiating from the Big Ten, but wouldn’t elaborate on it any further. He compared it to the non-pass interference call that eventually led to the L.A. Rams beating the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game.

“I did but I’m not going to get into it because it doesn’t matter. It’s like the Saints. They didn’t play in the Super Bowl so what does it matter? We move on,” Pitino said.

The problem is the foul did matter. It cost the Gophers a chance for a road win in the Big Ten against a team ahead of them in the NCAA’s NET rankings. It’s one of the criteria used to consider at-large teams for the NCAA Tournament, and Minnesota is currently No. 58. Nebraska improved one spot to No. 38 after beating the Gophers.

The good news for the Gophers is they have six games left before the Big Ten Tournament, and at least three chances for quality wins. It starts Saturday afternoon with a struggling Indiana squad paying a visit to Williams Arena.

The Hoosiers had lost seven straight Big Ten games before beating Michigan State. They’ve lost nine of their last 10, and are 4-9 in league play in Archie Miller’s second season as head coach.

Gophers’ players say they’ve moved on from Wednesday’s controversial finish. Their goal is to take any remaining anger and frustration out on the Hoosiers.

“I think we’re all kind of upset a little obviously still. Just kind of use that as motivation and we know we’ve got to win some games coming up here, so just use it as motivation and move on,” senior guard Brock Stull said.

The reality is Wednesday’s loss shouldn’t have come down to the foul call on Coffey. The Gophers had a 15-4 lead early, but Nebraska fought back and led by as many as seven points in the second half. Jordan Murphy got called for a charge on Minnesota’s penultimate possession, and Dupree McBrayer tried to gather a loose ball after a Daniel Oturu block, but was called out of bounds with the ball before Coffey’s controversial foul call.

The Gophers were also without forward Eric Curry for a second straight game. He’s been battling a calf injury and is a key defensive player or Minnesota. Pitino said it’s not known if he’ll play Saturday against Indiana. In Curry’s mind, the game at Nebraska should never have come down to a questionable call on Coffey.

“We know it was a bad call but from my perspective, we should’ve gotten the rebound. That’s what I go of off. We should’ve gotten the rebound and shouldn’t have even been in that position,” Curry said.

Despite the loss, NCAA bracket analysts Joe Lunardi and Jeff Goodman each had the Gophers in the NCAA Tournament in projections released Friday. Lunardi has the Gophers as a No. 12 seed facing Louisville. Goodman had Minnesota a No. 10 seed facing Buffalo. Even Jerry Palm as Minnesota as a No. 9 seed, facing TCU.

Even with their recent skid, the Gophers largely control their own NCAA Tournament fate. If they can win at least four of their remaining six games, which puts them at 10-10 at worst in the Big Ten, they should be heading to the conference tournament without fear of being on the NCAA Tournament bubble. They’re looking for home wins against Indiana, Michigan next week and Purdue on March 5.

The remaining road schedule includes Rutgers, Northwestern and Maryland. Michigan (8), Purdue (11) and Maryland (21) are all currently ahead of the Gophers in the NCAA NET rankings. The Big Ten Tournament also likely will present an opportunity for more quality wins, but the Gophers are better off staying concerned with their known schedule.

“Kind of just worry about Indiana. I want to win them all but I don’t really think like that. I try not to think like that,” Pitino said. “It’s human nature to think that way and look ahead. But you’ve got to win at home.”

One area that must improve for the Gophers is their perimeter shooting. They’re dead last in the Big Ten and ranked 318th in the country at 31 percent from the three-point line. They’re last in both perimeter shots attempted (420) and made (130). Indiana is right in front of them at 437 attempted and 143 made.

The Gophers are showing improvement in that area. They shot a combined 11-of-28 (39 percent) against Michigan State and Nebraska after going a combined 3-of-29 in losses to Purdue and Wisconsin.

Regardless of how it happens, the Gophers need to string together wins to avoid the NCAA Tournament bubble before the conference tournament. To get there, they need Coffey at his best offensively. He’s still one of the top scorers in Big Ten play at 16.7 points per game, but is averaging just 7.6 points per game in Minnesota’s last three losses on a combined 9-of-26 shooting (34.6 percent).

It starts with beating Indiana Saturday, who is projected to be in the field of 68 despite its Big Ten struggles.

“With the way this conference is, there’s a lot of teams that could potentially get into the tournament. A lot of people have Indiana in right now, so it’s a quality win opportunity for us,” Pitino said. “So if we can turn this thing, it’s very important.”