Gophers not giving up despite disappointing season

Michigan State has a perfect 12-0 home record at the Breslin Center this season.

by Zach Eisendrath

Interim Minnesota men’s basketball coach Jim Molinari wants to make one thing abundantly clear: Despite its many short comings thus far this season, his team has not – and will not – give up.

The Gophers, who are riding a four-game losing streak, will try to end their slump tonight when they travel to East Lansing, Mich., to take on Michigan State at 6 at the Breslin Center.

“This idea that some people say that it looks like your guys have given up, (and are) not playing hard – I don’t think that at all,” Molinari said. “I try to tell them if they keep working, they are going to have better days.”

Better days have been few and far between for Minnesota as of late, while the Spartans are finally finding their groove.

After dropping its first two Big Ten games, Michigan State (16-4 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) is on a three-game conference winning streak, largely because it has found its rhythm offensively. On Saturday, the Spartans scored a whopping 91 points in a win at Penn State.

“This is not a great team,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said about his team. “But it is beginning to be more solid and steadier. But what I’m going to worry about most is how we play.”

On the other hand, the Gophers (7-12, 1-4) haven’t been able to find the bottom of the net as of late – scoring a season-low 40 points against Northwestern just five days ago.

Molinari said part of the problem is his team isn’t sharing the ball enough, mainly because everyone wants to be the hero.

“We don’t make the extra pass,” he said. “I’m not going to say we’re selfish; I think it’s more that we want it so bad, that everybody wants to make it happen.”

And when a team isn’t able to make shots, confidence becomes an issue, according to sophomore guard Jamal Abu-Shamala.

“We’re trying offensively. It’s just one of those times where the team just can’t find the right rhythm,” he said.”When you lose four straight, you’re always going to have a lack of confidence.”

There are many things Minnesota needs to change to turn its season around, but getting off to a quick start should be one priority.

In their last three games, the Gophers have started slowly and had to work from behind. The team has been averaging just 19.3 points in the first half ever since junior center Spencer Tollackson was sidelined with a hand injury.

Abu-Shamala said it’s important for Minnesota to be able to throw the first punch instead of always trying to dig itself out of a deep hole.

“It’s big,” Abu-Shamala said of gaining an early lead. “Then you get your confidence up right away and take the other team’s confidence (away).”

Taking away Michigan State’s confidence won’t be an easy task. Like all Izzo-coached teams, this group of Spartans is physical, athletic and likes to play at an up-tempo pace – something drastically different than what the Wildcats threw at Minnesota on Saturday.

Despite losing three players to the NBA last June, Michigan State is 12-0 at home and playing well thanks in part to junior point guard Drew Neitzel. Neitzel is the Spartans’ leading scorer, averaging 18.5 points and is a solid floor general, averaging 4.6 assists per contest.

Molinari said Izzo continues to make the NCAA Tournament year in and year out because of the respect he commands from his players.

“They know that he’s the king, so they do what the king says or they’re not in the kingdom,” Molinari said.

Michigan State’s coaching situation, one of stability, is a sharp contrast to the Gophers’ current position.

But even with the program in limbo, that doesn’t mean Molinari isn’t trying to get everything out of the situation he’s been dealt.

“We want to win. But it’s going to get tougher and tougher because the Big Ten’s unforgiving,” he said.

“We’re in this together, and we’re going to figure out a way to keep getting better.”