Updated: January 12th, 2014 2:44pm
Next three games will shape the state of Pitino's first go in Big Ten

Next three games will shape the state of Pitino's first go in Big Ten

by Andrew Krammer
1500ESPN.com

Following Saturday's overtime loss at the fifth-ranked Michigan State Spartans, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-4, 2-2 Big Ten) have shown they can be a formidable and competitive squad. 

For a program that underwent a complete facelift in the offseason, they're just spinning their wheels in the dirt under the raised floor at Williams Arena. 

In coach Richard Pitino's first season, the Gophers look just like any of Tubby Smith's six squads that landed smack dab in the middle of the Big Ten standings -- finishing no better than 9-9 in the conference, earning no more than a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

The Gophers aren't regressing, they're just not progressing -- yet. 

We saw the flashes from new players like Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu, who were able to notch two buckets for five points in the closing seconds to force a 71-71 tie and send the Gophers and Spartans into overtime -- along with a little help from Gary Harris, who missed two free throws for Michigan State that could've put the game out of reach in regulation. The Spartans were also without their primary inside threat in center Adreian Payne. 

But how the Gophers respond to crushing loss in their next three games will shape the state of first-year coach Richard Pitino's inaugural season. Pitino's Gophers have won two Big Ten games against squads with a combined 0-6 record and have fallen to teams with a combined 7-0 Big Ten mark so far this season.

The Gophers host No. 3 Ohio State on Thursday, travel to No. 20 Iowa three days later and host No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 22 for one of two tough stretches in the schedule. Three of the Gophers' final four road conference games come at Wisconsin, at Ohio State and at Michigan. 

If Pitino's Gophers win one or two of the next three games, they'll give some validity to the notion that a schematic change -- or better yet, a schematic fit to players -- is sufficient enough to start climbing over the proverbial 9-9 Big Ten hump. 

If the Gophers lose all three games and carry the lull into the following games against lowly Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue -- they'll confirm Pitino's first year is merely a placeholder. 

Gophers optimists will body that blow and counter with opinions: 

• Pitino's guard-heavy small ball is a refreshing change of pace to Smith's shot-clock draining, half-court offense.

• Pitino's jacket-shedding demeanor and firey on-court attitude is a welcome shift from Smith's often stoic, uninspiring state. 

• Additions like forward Joey King and guards Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu have been instant difference makers.

They'll counter with facts:

• Pitino's pesky defense leads the Big Ten in steals (8.18 per game).

• Only four current contributors are Pitino players. 

But the fact is this 2013-14 Gophers aren't all that different from Smith's squads. Smith-coached Gophers teams led the Big Ten in steals in each of his first three seasons, two of which led to first-round exits in the NCAA Tournament. Smith failed to progress the program from there and finished 8-10 in the conference last season with his most talented team. 

The Gophers look much different on the floor as they're now forced to start underpowered Oto Osenieks at power forward after losing the inside presence of both Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams.  

Transfer guard Malik Smith saved the Gophers' win at Penn State with four clutch free throws and helped send Saturday's loss at Michigan State into overtime with a three-point shot followed up by DeAndre Mathieu's layup with six seconds left, embodying the fast-paced play in the program's philosophy change. 

But if the Gophers lose each of the next three games to ranked opponents, they'll begin to cement Pitino's first year as a placeholder, nothing more than a repeat of results from the Smith era. 

In Pitino's first two Big Ten victories, the Gophers have squeaked out three-point wins over the Purdue and Penn State. Still comprised by a majority of Smith recruits, this squad shows the same gift -- and curse -- of playing to their opponents' level, whether that be up (@MSU) or down (vs. injured MICH, @PSU). 

Setbacks are to be expected and will ultimately be accepted -- it's the first year in a major shift for the program after all. 

But save the patience for Gophers football and Jerry Kill's rebuilding process.

Pitino has the tools in his guard play -- and they've still remained competitive despite senior guard Austin Hollins' untimely shooting slump (10-of-36 in four Big Ten games).

Junior center Elliott Eliason has also grown into his skin and averages career highs in field goal percentage (50%), rebounds (8.6/game) and blocks (2.7/game). The seven-foot Eliason is third in the Big Ten in rebounding and second in blocked shots all while the Gophers lead the Big Ten in free throw percentage -- which has already doomed and saved teams in this young Big Ten season. 

The deck is stacked against the Gophers versus more talented teams like the Spartans, Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, Wolverines and Badgers. But the Big Ten success that Gophers hoops fans have longed for is at the door, the Gophers just need to get out of their own way and answer it. 

They'll get another crack to turn the doorknob on Thursday, when they host Ohio State, who also suffered an overtime loss to the Spartans on Jan. 7 and a 10-point loss to Iowa on Sunday.

Andrew Krammer covers the Minnesota Vikings for 1500ESPN.com. He previously covered the Gophers men's basketball team for the Minnesota Daily.
Email Andrew | @andrew_krammer
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