MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team started a four-game stretch Thursday night in their quest to solidify an NCAA Tournament berth before the Big Ten Tournament.
They failed their first test in a 67-59 loss to Northwestern at Williams Arena. The Gophers have lost four straight, dropped to 13-3 at home and 6-11 in the Big Ten. They have three regular season games left, meaning the best they can finish in league play is 9-11.
While they fight for their NCAA lives, questions about Richard Pitino’s future in Minnesota are starting to surface. Here are takeaways from Thursday’s loss.
HOT START, ICE COLD FINISH
The Gophers couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, leading 17-3 early and going on a 13-0 run. Northwestern answered with a 16-2 run to tie the game 19-19. Minnesota eventually led 31-25 at the half before the Wildcats scored the first 10 points of the second half. Northwestern out-scored Minnesota 42-28 in the second half, and 64-42 after the Gophers’ strong start.
To add insult to the loss, the Wildcats snapped a 13-game Big Ten losing streak. It was their first win since Dec. 26.
THE GOPHERS REALLY MISS GABE KALSCHEUR, LIAM ROBBINS
Gabe Kalscheur’s shooting struggles have been well-documented this season, but the Gophers need him on the floor on the defensive end. He’s out another three weeks with a broken finger on his shooting hand. Without Kalscheur, Boo Buie scored 25 points and the Gophers lacked flow on offense after their strong start.
They also miss the presence of Liam Robbins inside. Robbins did not play Thursday and was in a walking boot on the sideline with a bad left ankle. Robbins leads the Gophers in rebounding, and leads the Big Ten in blocked shots. Without him, Northwestern out-rebounded Minnesota 37-33 and had 22 points in the paint. Kalscheur and Robbins combine for about 20 points per game this season, and the Gophers have yet to find a way to replace it. Robbins could play Saturday at Nebraska. Kalscheur won’t return until the postseason, if there is one.
MINNESOTA CONTINUES TO STRUGGLE FROM THE PERIMETER
It’s been a hot topic with the Gophers virtually the entire season – their inability to hit 3-pointers. They’re last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting, and 326th nationally at 29 percent. Thursday, the Gophers led at the half despite shooting just 1-for-12 from the perimeter. They shot 3-of-15 in the second half after a couple of late makes from Marcus Carr, finishing 4-for-27. That’s 14.8 percent.
Carr and Jamal Mashburn Jr. went a combined 4-of-16 from the perimeter. Brandon Johnson, Eric Curry, Tre Williams, Isaiah Ihnen and Both Gach went a combined 0-for-11 from the perimeter. Minnesota will need to attack the basket and find other ways to score with its historically bad three-point shooting.
IS THERE A PATH TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Believe it or not, there is still a chance for the Gophers to be called on Selection Sunday despite dropping to 13-11 and now on a four-game losing streak. Minnesota has regular season games left at Nebraska, at Penn State and its home finale against Rutgers. Win those three, and you’re dancing regardless of what happens at the Big Ten Tournament. The problem is the Gophers have done nothing in the last four games to show they can go on a run, and they’re 0-8 on the road so far.
Anything is possible, but Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament chances are fading fast.
IS RICHARD PITINO ON THE HOT SEAT?
The reality is the Gophers need to make the NCAA Tournament for Richard Pitino to feel completely safe about his job. He’s in his eighth season, and has a 54-93 record in Big Ten play. He’s 140-119 overall. The Gophers under Pitino have finished above .500 in Big Ten play just once, when he was the Coach of the Year in 2017. He’s under contract for $2.19 million per season, but is taking a pay cut due to athletic department financial difficulties due to the COVID-18 pandemic.
The key figure in his contract his $1.75 million, that’s the buyout if AD Mark Coyle decides to move on from Pitino before April 30. Coyle made it clear after last season what his expectations were, and so far, they have not been met.
It’s something to monitor the rest of the season. For now, it’s more disappointment in Dinkytown.