MINNEAPOLIS - It’s no secret that the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team’s recent success through the toughest stretch in the history of the program has come largely because of defense.
The Gophers faced nine straight ranked opponents for the first time in program history. It’s the first time a team has faced that many ranked teams consecutively since St. John’s faced seven straight in 2011. Minnesota went 5-4 in that stretch with wins over St. Louis, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and most recently, Michigan.
The Gophers held the Spartans to just 56 points. They held the Buckeyes to 60. They limited the Wolverines to a season-low 57 points, had 29 deflections and forced 20 turnovers.
Their defensive catalyst? When it’s not Liam Robbins blocking shots, it’s Gabe Kalscheur. The junior has 10 steals on the season and is often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best offensive player.
"I’ve said it over and over, he’s the best defender in the league. He just takes pride in it. He wants to guard the best player, he’s relentless in his approach to do it," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said.
Kalscheur came to the Gophers from DeLaSalle, and played for Dave Thorson, now an assistant to Niko Medved at Colorado State. Playing for DeLaSalle, not playing defense and not playing hard is simply not an option.
In their win over Michigan, Kalscheur limited Franz Wagner to a season-low eight points. In a win over Iowa, Joe Wieskamp had 14 points, but needed 13 shots to do it.
"I just try to make it as tough as possible for them," Kalscheur said. "Defense, I take a lot of pride in because I feel like the defensive end brings a lot of energy to the offensive end. If you’re not doing a great job on offense, you can always take pride in putting in hustle and work on defense."
One thing Pitino can’t quite put his finger on? The glaring difference with how his team plays at Williams Arena, compared to when they leave their home court. The Gophers are 11-0 at home, blowing out Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. They came back from seven points down with 40 seconds to play against Iowa before winning in overtime.
On the road, they’re 0-4 with losses at Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan that weren’t competitive.
There are no fans at Williams Arena, other than a few family members for each player. In a normal scenario, The Barn would’ve been sold out against Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan.
"Clearly we’ve played very good basketball at home and clearly we haven’t played very good basketball on the road. I still don’t really understand why. To me it really shouldn’t matter, they’re all neutral site courts," Pitino said. "It’s just a unique year. Fans in the building or not, your effort, your enthusiasm should never change."
Luckily for the Gophers, they host Maryland Saturday afternoon and can improve to 12-0 with a win. They can also get above .500 in the Big Ten at 5-4.
The Terrapins are just 2-6 in the Big Ten, but the two wins came at Wisconsin and at Illinois. Defending home court is a priority in the Big Ten, with how difficult it is to win on the road, fans or not.
"We take a lot of pride in just being at home. We’re all trying to protect where we play. For us, it’s all about putting it all out there and trying to be the best team we can be at home," guard Both Gach said.