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Updated: January 2nd, 2014 10:29pm
Poor execution dooms Gophers hoops against hurting Wolverines squad

Poor execution dooms Gophers hoops against hurting Wolverines squad

by Pat Donnelly
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - The Gophers men's basketball team started the season with few expectations.

With a new coach installing an up-tempo system for a roster that lost the majority of its inside players to attrition, the best a fan could hope for was a little excitement to heat up the Barn this winter.

Then began the non-conference part of the schedule. The players took to first-year coach Richard Pitino's system quickly. The wins came fast and furious against both the sacrificial lambs and a few of the tougher opponents across the floor.

Suddenly the criteria for what would be deemed a successful season began to change.

The bar crept upward, inch by inch, until noted basketball savant Ken Pomeroy predicted the Gophers to win anywhere from nine to 11 conference games, which surely would punch their ticket to the Big Dance and earn Pitino national coach of the year consideration. 

Not so fast.

On Thursday night, the Gophers were dealt a cold slap in the face in their Big Ten opener.

Missing two of its top four scorers and most veteran players for much of the night, the Michigan Wolverines managed to sneak out of Williams Arena with a 63-60 victory.

Michigan played without center Mitch McGary, who's likely done for the season after undergoing back surgery. Early in the second half, forward Glenn Robinson III sprained his left ankle, hobbled to the locker room and did not return. That's two of the main holdovers from last year's national runners-up who were sidelined, and yet the Gophers still couldn't pull out a home-court win.

The result is a stark reminder of just how far this program has to go before it's capable of competing with elite talent. True, losing McGary and Robinson hurt. But it's a bit easier to stomach if you can replace them with the likes of Jon Horford (14 points, nine rebounds) and Zak Irvin (15 points on 5-for-8 shooting from 3-point range).

It's not like Michigan head coach John Beilein was forced to turn to walk-ons or junior college transfers to fill his lineup.

"We've got to understand that we're just building this," Pitino said. "They've got guys on that team who were in the national championship game last year. We're at the infancy stages of this."

There's a temptation. When the Gophers (in any sport) lose an apparently winnable game, fans think, "same old Gophers." Only this loss didn't have a "same-old" feel to it.

They didn't choke against an inferior team. Sure, they missed an opportunity to take advantage of the Wolverines' injuries. But the reason for the loss had very little to do with mentality and a whole lot to do with execution, especially on the offensive end.

Minnesota's top two scorers, Andre and Austin Hollins, had terrible shooting nights. Austin Hollins went 1-for-9, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, while Andre Hollins was 3-for-10 from the field. Austin Hollins didn't get to the line. Andre Hollins shot eight free throws, but made only five of them.

On an average night, those two combine for nearly 30 points. On Thursday, they scored 14, with 12 from Andre Hollins. That's not going to get it done against the cupcakes, let alone Michigan.

"I think it was just a bad shooting night," Austin Hollins said. "We were just missing some shots. I think we had a lot of good looks but they weren't falling. But (Michigan) did play good defense. They did a lot of good things."

Pitino said that while they did miss a lot of open shots, the Gophers also shot 1-for-8 on "challenge" shots, which he explained are shots that players are expected to make less than 30 percent of the time. So shot selection wasn't necessarily a strength on Thursday night.

Nor was hanging onto the ball.

The Gophers committed 15 turnovers, including five by junior point guard DeAndre Mathieu, playing in his first Big Ten game. In the second half, Minnesota was called for four offensive fouls, the most crucial coming against Elliott Eliason, who was having a field day in the low post (10 points, 10 rebounds on 5-for-6 shooting in 24 minutes) before he was whistled for his fourth foul.

With Eliason on the bench, Michigan cut into the Gophers' huge edge on the boards and ended up outrebounded 'only' by 14. But the Wolverines also only turned it over 10 times and hit enough shots down the stretch to stick a dispiriting loss on the Gophers.

"I said, 'Listen, I know you all wanted to start the Big Ten season with a win at home. You've been playing well. But this is a marathon, it's not a sprint,'" Pitino said of his postgame message to his players. "I just think it's so easy to stay together when you win but it's really hard to stay together when you lose, so we've got to continue to stay in the process and just be positive."

It might be tempting to mope, but there's no time to do so. The Gophers host a rugged Purdue squad on Sunday and neither team wants to start the season 0-2 in conference play.

"We've got Purdue, and they're not going to have any sympathy for us losing to Michigan," Eliason said. "They're going to come in and try to pound us. They're a good team and we've got to be ready to play."

Pitino stressed in his postgame comments that he saw a lot of positives in the Gophers' play on Thursday, and that game film will surely point out plenty of correctible mistakes for the players to work on in the two days of preparation for Purdue. That sits just fine with Andre Hollins.

"We have to learn from this one. It's a quick turn-around," he said. "That's just our game to learn from and we have to tighten it up, and I think we do well at correcting our mistakes the next time."

Patrick Donnelly covers Golden Gophers men's basketball for 1500ESPN.com. He has covered the Minnesota sports scene, from pros to preps, for the last 15 years for a variety of outlets.
Email Pat | @donnelly612
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