Minnesota picks up defensive intensity

The Gophers will take on Iowa and Indiana on the road this weekend.

Jack Satzinger

When asked about his team’s No. 5 steal ranking in early December, Richard Pitino brushed off the statistic’s significance.

“Numbers shouldn’t matter this early in the season,” the Gophers head coach said. “If we’re fifth in February, I’ll be very excited.”

Now it’s February, and Minnesota is second in the nation in steals. After starting Big Ten play with a surprising 0-5 record, the Gophers have won four of their last six games.

Minnesota (15-9, 4-7 Big Ten) has a sliver of momentum heading into its two-game road trip this weekend, and it is due to an enhanced defense.

“We picked up our defensive intensity,” senior guard Andre Hollins said. “That was one of the things that lost us all those close games. We couldn’t get a stop when we needed it.”

When the Gophers lost Daquein McNeil earlier this season, the team’s defensive liabilities were exposed. With Carlos Morris on the bench, Pitino had to play undersized Hollins or Nate Mason at small forward, or slide in a rangy player, like Charles Buggs or Joey King, as part of a zone defense.

Adding a zone to Minnesota’s defensive repertoire proved to be a struggle during the beginning of the season, but recently it has been a valuable asset.

The Gophers packed the lane last Saturday against Purdue with a matchup zone that limited the Boilermakers’ talented big men.

“I thought defensively we had a great game plan,” Pitino said after the contest. “Our defense continues to improve.”

But Minnesota’s defensive success last Saturday stretched farther than just limiting one of the conference’s tallest frontcourt tandems. The Gophers also racked up 17 steals — the most a Big Ten team has recorded since 2010.

And another record should come tumbling down soon. Minnesota has its sights set on breaking the program’s single-season steals record of 299.

The Gophers have 260 steals on the year and are on pace to break the record before Big Ten play ends.

“We all know it’s there, and we all know it’s one of our goals,” redshirt senior center Mo Walker said. “We’re trying to do something special.”

Before last week’s victory against Purdue, Minnesota held Nebraska to a season-low 42 points by forcing 20 turnovers.

Cornhuskers head coach Tim Miles said Minnesota’s ability to shift from a full-court press to zone defense makes the opposition “race around a little bit.”

The Gophers’ defense has stifled opponents of late in home games, but in this weekend’s contests at Iowa and Indiana, Minnesota could find it more difficult to ratchet up the pressure.

“It’s always easier to take some chances at home [defensively],” Pitino said. “We’ve got two games on the road, so we’ve got to find a way to steal one or two.”

 Stealing a road game has not been easy for Minnesota under Pitino. The last time the Gophers won in a Big Ten opponent’s building was Feb. 16, 2014, at Northwestern.

After a rough start to conference play, the Gophers have seen more success.

With just seven regular season games left to cement a postseason resume, it’s time to see if they can finally do the same on the road.

“We’ve known we dug ourselves a hole,” King said. “There’s a sense of urgency.”