To say that things aren’t going as planned for Minnesota would be an understatement.
Slated as the preseason consensus No. 3 team in the Big Ten, the Golden Gophers (3-8 Big Ten, 14-10 overall) currently sit tied for 11th place in the conference standings with just seven games remaining. Their 10 losses are as many as they had all of last season.
Minnesota’s plunge to bottom-dweller status is largely a result of the roster hits it has taken — most notably center Reggie Lynch, who is under investigation by the university for multiple sexual assault allegations. Lynch was last season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and without him, the Golden Gophers sit second to last in the conference in scoring defense.
Minnesota has also suffered from the absences of starting shooting guard Amir Coffey — who is day-to-day with a recurring shoulder injury — and sixth man Eric Curry with an ACL tear. Coffey played over 33 minutes per game last season as the team’s best finisher, while Curry notched nearly 20 minutes per game as the team’s sixth man.
Amid injury and controversy in a disappointing year, the Golden Gophers enter Crisler Center on Saturday on a four-game losing streak and with little to play for except pride. A victory on the road over No. 24 Michigan (7-4, 18-6), though, would be significant for Minnesota.
Enduring what looks like a lost season, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino now views each tough game as an opportunity to flatten the learning curve.
“I equate it to when Nate (Mason), Dupree (McBrayer) and (Jordan Murphy) two years ago were in the game,” Pitino said on Jan. 18. “And as painful as it was at times, it was helpful to them in their growth.”
Despite Minnesota’s struggles, it’s been Murphy — not the bench or newcomers — who has picked up the most slack. The junior forward is having a banner year, averaging 17.7 points, 11.9 rebounds, a block and a steal per game. Without Lynch, Murphy has spearheaded an impressive rebounding effort — the Golden Gophers are second in the conference in offensive rebounding and third in defensive rebounding.
And if Michigan coach John Beilein loves anything about his team, it’s how it keeps opponents off the glass. While the Wolverines don’t grab many offensive boards themselves — they’re last in the conference — they boast the highest defensive rebounding percentage in the Big Ten.
“There’s one thing I care about on the glass: Don’t let them get offensive rebounds,” Beilein said on Jan. 12. “That’s all it is. You see numbers, (but) the number is what’s the percentage of offensive rebounds they got. And we’re one of the better ones in the country at not allowing offensive rebounds. … I don’t care about how many rebounds they get, we’re like No. 1 in defensive transition. You’ve gotta pick your poison there.”
Added senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman after Monday’s game: “I like how gritty we were on the boards. Everybody was crashing the boards on (Northwestern), and we held them to seven offensive rebounds. Any time you can limit teams to less than 10, you’re gonna win the game.”
For a Michigan offense that has scored 27 points or less in the first half in four of its last five games, controlling the glass and exploiting one of the conference’s weakest defenses could likely foretell the final outcome.
With a chance to add one bright spot to its gloomy season, Minnesota will have to exceed expectations and rebound in more ways than one. Against the Wolverines, that opportunity may be hard to come by.