A month ago, Richard Pitino was still searching for an identity for his Gophers basketball team, one stacked with newcomers and no time to mesh.
“I know what this team can become,” the team’s eighth-year coach said. “We have a lot of good pieces.”
He just wasn’t sure how they could all fit together. It took seven games, including an embarrassing 27-point loss at Illinois, but the Gophers’ identity is much more clear heading into Thursday night’s big showdown with No. 6 Wisconsin.
The No. 21 Gophers rely heavily on high-scoring junior guard Marcus Carr making plays. Still, Pitino’s team has shown it can win in the Big Ten by establishing a fast-paced offense inside and out, getting to the foul line and being tougher defensively and on the glass.
“We knew we were going to get better and show who we really are,” center Liam Robbins said. “I think we’ve done that.”
Their next game is against a Wisconsin team that could never be mistaken for going through an identity crisis. The Badgers’ long-established system perfected by Bo Ryan and now championed by his former assistant Greg Gard as head coach has stood the test of time.
These 8-2 Badgers — led by Minnesota natives and seniors Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers — are as formidable as ever with their defensive-minded, slow-paced style. But they will be matched by a Gophers team that appears to have found itself, especially during a three-game winning streak against St. Louis, Iowa and Michigan State.
“We took a major step forward against Michigan State,” Pitino said. “Teams with a lot of newcomers, it’s going to take some time. For us, we’ve been fortunate to win being 9-1. But we still need to get better.”
The Gophers have already improved at attacking the basket rather than settling for jumpers. Getting to the foul line has become a staple, helping them lead the nation with 22.7 made free throws per game. They rank second among high-major teams with 79.4 possessions per game, a product of a more up-tempo approach.
Scoring in transition matters to Minnesota’s offense, which averaged 16 fast-break points the past three games. But Wisconsin will try to slow things down.
In a half-court game, keeping 7-footer Robbins out of foul trouble will be the key for the Gophers against Wisconsin’s talented senior frontcourt of Reuvers, Micah Potter and Aleem Ford.
Carr might be the best player on the floor Thursday, coming off a Big Ten player of the week award. But the Gophers have been better lately when they’ve established themselves in the post as well.
In the past two games, Robbins stayed out of foul trouble to provide an inside presence with 36 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks combined in wins over Iowa and Michigan State. The Drake transfer is averaging 17.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocks in five games playing 25 minutes or more.
Senior forward Brandon Johnson also came to the rescue with 26 points on eight threes in the 102-95 overtime win against the Hawkeyes. The Gophers are using their big men in pick-and-pop plays more, meaning they set screens and get open for jump shots instead of always rolling to the basket.
“We don’t want it to just be two guys offensively,” Pitino said. “We certainly run a decent amount of pick-and-rolls. If you put Marcus Carr and Liam Robbins in a ball screen, if they run it properly you should get the other guys involved depending on how the defense guards it. We want balance.”
Pitino demands his players play with the team’s motto of 95%. That means doing the things that help the Gophers win in the 95% of the time when you don’t have the ball.
Effort is one thing. Execution is another. It helped the Gophers to know exactly what they can do to be disruptive defensively as a team as well.
Robbins leads the Big Ten with 2.6 blocks per game. Gabe Kalscheur is one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. But the Gophers made their biggest strides in the past three games when they’ve all contributed to locking down opponents and crashing the boards.
The Gophers were outrebounded by 18 vs. Illinois and 17 against Iowa but turned that around beating Michigan State 52-36 on the glass. The Spartans were also held to 25.7% shooting, their worst field goal shooting in a game since 2012.
Making rebounding and defense part of Minnesota’s consistent identity is a work in progress, but the improvement since the Illinois loss has been no small feat.