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Five biggest reasons for Gophers' five early losses

Coming off two NCAA tournaments in the last three years under Richard Pitino, the Gophers men’s basketball team wasn’t expecting to be fighting in early December just to stay above .500.

Falling in the Big Ten opener 72-52 Monday at Iowa means the Gophers have their worst record through the first nine games since 2006-07. 

Seven newcomers and a handful of returning players have struggled to play well together against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, which doesn’t ease up Sunday against No. 3 Ohio State at Williams Arena.

Pitino’s team has struggled in a variety of ways so far this year, but these are the five biggest reasons for the five losses.

Backcourt inconsistency – The Gophers filled their starting backcourt holes with two sit-out transfers in Marcus Carr and Payton Willis, who had started games at Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively. They teamed up with sophomore Gabe Kalscheur, one of the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten last season. They hoped to become one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten. While their scoring numbers aren’t bad overall, their lows have been near rock bottom. In losses at Utah and Butler, Willis had 15 points combined on 5-for-20 shooting from the field, including 1-for-11 from three. In losses to Butler, Iowa and DePaul, Carr scored 15 points combined on 4-for-29 shooting from the field, including 1-for-10 from three. In losses to Oklahoma, Butler, DePaul and Iowa combined, Kalscheur averaged just 6.8 points on 20.9% shooting from the field (9 for 43) and 19.4% from three (6 for 31). Carr followed up his career-best 24-point performance in a win last week vs. Clemson with just two points Monday on 1-for-10 shooting vs. Iowa. Kalscheur had an abrupt end to his double figure scoring streak of five games. He went scoreless (0 for 10 shooting) for just the second time in his career on Monday. The Gophers are hard to beat when Carr and Kalscheur especially are playing at their best but have a slim chance to win when both are at their worst. Settling for too many jump shots, not drawing fouls and failing to get touches in the paint on penetration has contributed to the U backcourt’s horrid performances offensively in losses. Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer were not known for their outside shooting, but they constantly put pressure on defenses attacking the basket last season.

Underdeveloped bench – Pitino is not known to go deep into his bench. That’s been one of the most consistent things during his tenure at Minnesota. To have that much confidence in your starters to play them almost the entire game can pay off when they’re playing well. What about when they’re really, really, really having an off night? That’s happened with the backcourt a few times this year. This summer in Italy, the Gophers had solid contributions from freshmen guards Tre’ Williams and Bryan Greenlee on their foreign tour. Williams even led the team in scoring, but he’s averaging just 12 minutes per game. Greenlee is seeing even less playing time at 3.3 minutes per game. Isaiah Ihnen, the top recruit in the 2019 class, hasn’t gotten into the rotation after missing the first three games with a wrist injury. Sophomore Jarvis Omersa and senior Michael Hurt have been the only bench players with consistent minutes, but they are not allowed often to play through mistakes. The Gophers rank 338th among 353 Division I basketball teams in bench minutes, per Ken Pom.  

Helping Oturu – Sophomore Daniel Oturu has established himself as one of the top centers in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt about that. Through nine games, the 6-foot-10 Cretin-Derham Hall product ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring (18.0), first in rebounding (11.0), second in blocks (3.6) and third in field goal percentage (65.0). He’s putting up All-Big Ten numbers, but the Gophers were searching for more production alongside him in the frontcourt. Senior Alihan Demir struggled in losses to Oklahoma, Butler and Utah scoring a combined 15 points on 6-for-25 shooting with 11 rebounds total. But Demir is starting to feel comfortable playing with Oturu. The Drexel graduate transfer has scored in double figures in three of his last four games. He’s averaging 10.3 points and five rebounds in that span, including 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks at Iowa. Omersa has been Oturu's backup at center when he gets into foul trouble, but he hasn't shown much offensive spark outside of an 11-point game vs. North Dakota.

Not getting to foul line – The biggest difference in scoring for the Gophers last season and this season has been foul shooting. Through nine games last season, Minnesota shot 67% from the line, but made 19 free throws per game. That’s more free throws than the Gophers even attempt this season at about 15 per game – and they’re only making nine of them on average for 62 percent (13th in the Big Ten). On Monday, Pitino was disappointed to see his team only shoot 4 for 8 at the charity stripe in the Iowa loss. Carr and Kalscheur had no free throw attempts in the game. When the shots aren’t falling from three-point range, the Gophers go through seemingly endless scoring droughts that could be shortened by trips to the line. They rank 326th in the nation in percentage of points from foul shooting (13 percent).

Establishing an identity – Pitino quoted New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick about maximizing his team’s strengths before Minnesota’s 18-point win against Clemson last week. Getting the ball inside to Oturu, catch-and-shoot jumpers and defending without fouling were strengths the Gophers emphasized in their most impressive victory of the season. Oturu is a double-double machine like former Gophers star Jordan Murphy. The Gophers are third in the Big Ten with 9.2 threes made per game, but they’ve struggled mightily at times (shot 6 for 25 vs. Iowa's zone defense). Defensive lapses and lack of communication guarding in transition against the Hawkeyes were major issues in the 20-point loss in Iowa City. Can they rely on their defense to keep them competitive when the shots aren't falling in Big Ten play this season? The Gophers ranked 22nd and 48th in the country in defensive efficiency during NCAA tournament teams in 2017 and 2019, but they're at 73rd this year.

Pregame: Showdown of top Big Ten big men features Luke Garza vs. Daniel Oturu

Gophers men’s hoops at Iowa Big Ten opener

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Oturu vs. Garza – When was the last time two of the top scorers in the Big Ten were centers? So far this season the Gophers and Iowa are turning back the clock. The days of big men dominating basketball in the paint are long gone in the NBA – and the college game picked up on the trend. Tell that to Richard Pitino and Fran McCaffery who have built their offenses around throwing the ball inside to Daniel Oturu and Luke Garza this season. Garza averages a Big Ten-best 22.7 points for the Hawkeyes, which included a career-best 44 points in a 103-91 loss Friday vs. Michigan. That was the most points ever scored by a Iowa big man and the highest scoring game in Crisler Arena history. The 6-foot-11 260-pound junior also averages 9.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. Oturu ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring (17.5), first in rebounding (10.9), second in blocks per game (3.4) and fifth in field goal percentage (62.5). Oturu and Memphis’ James Wiseman, a potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick, are the only two players in the nation this season averaging at least 17 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and shooting 60 percent from the field. Only five players in Division I have done that in a season since 1992-93, including Tim Duncan in 1996-97. This will be the first meeting between Oturu and Garza tonight. Last season, Garza scored a then-career high 25 points in a 92-87 loss on Jan. 27 in Minneapolis. Oturu missed the game with a shoulder injury.

Point guard play – Gophers sophomore Marcus Carr is coming off a career-best 24 points and nine assists in a 78-60 win a week ago against Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Carr bounced back from a season-low four points in Minnesota’s loss Nov. 29 to DePaul. As important as Oturu has been this season, Carr’s play is just as important to the U’s success. In the four previous losses to high-major opponents this year, Carr averaged 11 points on just 26 percent shooting from the field. The Hawkeyes were looking at major point guard issues if senior Jordan Bohannon was out for the year. Bohannon could see his season end at some point with surgery, but he continues to play through a hip injury. Despite being severely limited physically at times, he scored 17 points vs. Syracuse and 20 points vs. Texas Tech in the last four games. Bohannon had just two points in 21 minutes in last year's loss at Minnesota. It was the only game of his career he didn't even attempt a three-pointer.

Road warriors? – The Gophers got off to a horrible start down 16-0 in their last road game in a 73-69 loss Nov. 15 at Utah. That was the closest they came to a victory away from home with losses at Butler and against Oklahoma in Sioux Falls. Winning on the road in the Big Ten hasn’t been easy for Minnesota under Pitino with a 2-8 record last season, including six straight losses in 2018-19. One thing the Gophers can look back on for confidence is the 59-52 win at Wisconsin last season. It was the first victory for the program in Madison in a decade. Veteran guards Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer were the story that night with a combined 35 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. But Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Michael Hurt are the only returning players from that team. Those three players are trying to get the seven newcomers prepared mentally for how tough their first Big Ten road game will be tonight. A year ago, the Gophers’ freshmen were in for a rude awakening in a 79-59 loss at Ohio State. Oturu had nine points but wasn’t much of an inside presence. And Kalscheur had zero points in 22 minutes. Hurt is the only player currently on the Gophers roster who has played in Iowa City. The last time the Gophers played at Iowa was in a 94-80 loss on Jan. 30, 2018. Bohannon had 20 points and 10 assists in the game.

GAME INFO

Time: 7 p.m. CT, Monday. Where: Carver Hawkeye Arena. Line: Iowa 5.5-point favorite. Series: Minnesota leads the series 101-88, including winning last meeting 92-87 at home on Jan. 27, 2019. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus. Radio: 100.3.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (4-4)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 14.4

G – Payton Willis 6-5 200 Jr. 12.0

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 12.1

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.1

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 17.5

Key reserves– Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 3.4 ppg; Tre’ Williams, G, 6-5, Fr., 2.9 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, Fr., 1.5 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 2.0 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 134-110 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery last month on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season … Freshman forward Isaiah Ihnen scored three points in nine minutes during his season debut vs. Utah on Nov. 15. The 6-foot-9 Ihnen, a four-star recruit from Germany, missed the first three games with a right wrist injury.

IOWA HAWKEYES (6-3) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Jordan Bohannon 6-1 185 Sr. 9.5

G – Connor McCaffery 6-5 205 So. 7.7

G – C.J. Fredrick 6-3 195 Fr. 10.5

F – Joe Wieskamp 6-6 210 So. 10.7

C – Luke Garza 6-11 260 Jr. 22.7

Key reserves– Joe Toussaint, G, 6-0, Fr., 7.2 ppg; Ryan Kriener, F, 6-10, Sr., 6.1 ppg; Cordell Pemsl, F, 6-9, Jr., 2.7 ppg; Bakari Evelyn, G, 6-2, Sr., 1.7 ppg; Patrick McCaffery, F, 6-9, Fr., 3.0 ppg.

Coach: Fran McCaffery 431-312 (23rd season)  

Notable: The Hawkeyes have one of the biggest differences in offensive (No. 3) and defensive efficiency (No. 128) ranking. They also rank fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (80.4 points) and 13th in scoring defense (72.8).

Fuller’s prediction (5-3 with picks): Gophers 85, Iowa 80. 

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