Zulgad: Inconsistent Gophers give postseason hopes, Pitino’s future a boost

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers returned to Williams Arena on Saturday afternoon surrounded as much by speculation regarding coach Richard Pitino’s future as whether this remained an NCAA tournament team.

A four-game losing streak, including three on the road, capped by a disappointing defeat at struggling Nebraska on Wednesday, had dropped the Gophers to 6-8 in the Big Ten and 16-9 overall.

Visiting Indiana appeared to be just what the Gophers needed. The Hoosiers had lost nine of 10 in the conference — the victory was an overtime upset at then-No. 6 Michigan State — but had dropped back-to-back home games to Iowa and Ohio State and was 4-9 in the conference.

Pitino’s inconsistent team was down 6-3 early but a layup by Daniel Oturu pulled Minnesota within one. The Gophers got the ball back and, as the shot clock wound down, Oturu had no choice but to launch a three-point attempt. The freshman center’s shot went in, Williams Arena erupted and the Hoosiers were basically done.

Indiana would tie the score at 8 shortly thereafter, but the Gophers began to pull away and led by 12 points at halftime. This happened despite a first-half stretch in which the Gophers went more than 5 minutes without a field goal and were 1-for-8.

There would be no second-half shooting malaise, as the Gophers increased their lead to 30 at one point by finding the touch that far too often has eluded them this season. Minnesota hit on 7 of 14 three-point attempts in the second half, and a Big Ten season-best 54.5 percent of its three-pointers for the game (12 of 22) en route to an 84-63 victory.

The convincing win doesn’t solve all of Pitino’s issues, but it did provide a respite from the recent troubles.

The Gophers can take a significant step toward improving their postseason hopes with a victory Thursday over Michigan at Williams Arena. The Gophers lost to the Wolverines in overtime earlier this season and, unlike Indiana, No. 6 Michigan is a good team.

The Gophers final four games before the Big Ten tournament will be at Rutgers, at Northwestern, vs. No. 12 Purdue and at No. 24 Maryland. Rutgers and Northwestern are sitting toward the bottom of the conference standings, while Purdue and Maryland are closer to the top.

Assuming victories over Rutgers and Northwestern is dangerous, considering the Gophers have had clunkers against some bottom-feeders on the road this season. That includes a 27-point loss at Illinois and the one-point loss to a Nebraska team that had dropped seven in a row and was able to beat the Gophers based on a questionable late foul call against Minnesota.

Those types of losses are why some have been wondering if Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle would consider a coaching change. Pitino has led the Gophers to one NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons.

If Pitino is going to get to a second tournament, the Gophers are going to need to find consistency as the Big Ten schedule winds down. Pitino needs to see the team that scored 85 points in a home win over Nebraska, or 88 in a victory over Rutgers at Williams Arena, or 92 in a home victory over Iowa, or managed to go into Madison and come away with a seven-point win.

The Gophers’ success isn’t going to be based on style points, but often seems to start with the intensity brought by senior forward Jordan Murphy. Murphy, the Gophers’ all-time leading rebounder and chief lunch pail guy, led Minnesota with 23 points, 11 rebounds and added three assists in 29 minutes, 45 seconds on Saturday.

Junior guard Amir Coffey contributed 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds and also played good defense in 34:15; freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur made 6-of-8 three-point shots, including 3-of-4 in the second half, to finish with 20 points in 30:32.

Pitino was asked how his team can bottle the key elements of Saturday’s performance going forward.

“We’ve had some good ones at home, offensively,” Pitino said. “We’ve not had some good ones on the road. So I think it’s just we’ve got to understand where we’re getting some good shots, stick with the execution. The same offense that’s producing 90-something vs. Iowa, 80-something vs. Illinois, 80-something vs. a really good defensive Indiana team, it’s just being fundamentally sound.”

Playing a fundamentally sound style likely will be the only way the Gophers can upset Michigan and continue to move up in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings that now will be the key for the NCAA men’s basketball committee as it selects and seeds team for the tournament.

The Gophers entered Saturday 58th in those rankings, a spot that has caused speculation about Pitino’s future and doubt about whether the Gophers will be playing meaningful games well into March. The win over the Indiana provided hope that can still happen, but the Gophers must begin to display far more consistency to make it a reality.