Minnesota is in a bind. After a strong 11-2 showing in the non-conference schedule — with losses to only Louisville and St. John’s – the Gophers are now 0-5 in conference play after losing to Iowa on Tuesday night. In case you missed it, Minnesota came back from a 17-point deficit in the second half only to lose when DeAndre Mathieu’s game-tying layup came a tenth of a second too late. Now more than a quarter of the way through conference play, Minnesota is one of only two Big Ten teams (Penn State is the other) without a conference win; even lowly Rutgers already has two. To be fair, the rough start can partially be explained by an unfortunate schedule where three of the Gophers’ first four Big Ten games came on the road. This week’s home game against Iowa, however, marked the beginning of a seven-game series that includes five home games. Their hope was to start making up some of that lost ground during the friendly part of their schedule. That will get tougher now, as Minnesota’s offense has proved inefficient and fixing its scoring woes will need to be addressed immediately to find any hope left.
In Tuesday night’s game, Minnesota’s offense was a tale of two halves. In the first session, the Gophers were unable to find any rhythm and only managed to shoot 30 percent from the field. In the second half, however, they surged back by shooting over 62 percent from the field and putting together a 29-9 run that just fell short. But does a successful 20 minutes mean that the offense has started to click? The second-half outpouring was driven by two players – Nate Mason and Carlos Morris (37 points combined) — both of whom caught fire rather than the offense running any great sets. A major reason for the team’s offensive struggles has been inconsistency from their veteran leaders. Andre Hollins is not having an all-Big Ten senior season. He chipped in only seven points against Iowa and was a non-factor for the majority of the game. Mathieu has also been unreliable, witnessed by the fact that he went scoreless against Michigan State and only managed four points against Maryland. This duo’s scoring average has dropped by a combined 3.5 PPG from last season, and this decline in production and inconsistency from their veterans has severely and negatively impacted Minnesota’s offense. Richard Pitino, to his credit, is trying just about anything to fix the problem. He removed Morris from the starting lineup against Iowa and he responded by leading all scorers (20 points) in his first game as the sixth man. But time has run out for experimentation — if this offense can’t click during the next three weeks that are mostly at home, the Gophers will be permanently stuck in the Big Ten cellar. That’s something no one saw coming as recently as two short weeks ago.