Minnesota comes up empty in Orlando

C.J. Spang

IORLANDO, Fla. –

it couldn’t have gone any worse for Minnesota’s men’s basketball team at the Old Spice Classic.

The Gophers were the only team to lose all three games, falling to Marist on Thursday, Southern Illinois on Friday and Montana on Sunday.

Coach Dan Monson said his team came to the tournament to learn some things about itself, but what they learned was not what they had hoped.

“We came down here and found out a lot about ourselves,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t like what we found out.

“Now, it’s just a matter of if we can fix that and, unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time to do that.”

Time is of the essence because Minnesota has lost its first four games in a seven-game, 15-day stretch that features three opponents that appeared in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

“When I set this schedule up, I knew this was going to be a difficult stretch,” he said. “I knew this would challenge and expose us, but you have more confidence that we would play better than we are right now.”

The Gophers were exposed in all sorts of ways in Florida. And, when one problem seemed to be somewhat corrected, another one appeared.

Against Marist, Minnesota’s defense couldn’t stop the Red Foxes backcourt combination of seniors Jared Jordan and Will Whittington.

Jordan finished the game with 10 assists and Whittington was 4-of-9 from three-point range.

The Gophers outscored Marist in the second half to make things not look quite as lopsided, but one thing that remained lopsided was free throw attempts.

Marist was 8-of-14 from the charity stripe while Minnesota was 1-of-2. And those two free throws came with 2:09 remaining in the game.

Southern Illinois’ high-pressure defense caused most of the Gophers’ problems in their contest.

The Salukis were relentless with their pressure, constantly harassing the ball handler and never allowing Minnesota to settle into an offensive rhythm.

That Southern Illinois turned the ball over 17 teams was irrelevant because the Gophers coughed it up 22 times and the Salukis converted them for 26 points.

In the game against Montana, Minnesota had only one turnover in the first 12 minutes, but coughed up the ball six times in the final eight minutes, turning its five-point lead into a four-point deficit at halftime.

It wasn’t any better to start the second frame as the Gophers had five turnovers in their first six possessions.

And those turnovers weren’t caused by the Grizzlies stellar defense– they were simply mental mistakes, something Monson said will happen with a young team.

“Growing up is not just physical,” he said. “We don’t just have physical work to do; we’ve got a lot of mental work to do.”

Sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala said the feeling he’s having during Minnesota’s current losing streak is the same feeling he had when the Gophers began conference play with six straight losses a year ago.

But Minnesota rebounded last year, for a time anyway, winning five of their next seven games. And the good thing about this year Abu-Shamala said is it’s happening sooner, rather than later.

“I guess one thing that’s positive coming out of it is that it is happening now, so we can fix it by the time the Big Ten comes,” he said.

Whether or not this young Gophers squad fixes it remains to be seen. There’s a lot of work to be done before Big Ten play rolls around.

Monson said his team is frustrated, but it’s better than being happy with its current state and now all that matters is what his team is going to do about it.

“As I told them, you can’t beat on lockers or yell and scream and cuss,” he said. “You gotta go to work in practice, that’s how you change it; getting frustrated doesn’t help it.”