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Episode 28: Catching up with Gophers basketball

In this week’s episode of the “Weekly Rundown” our staff discusses the Gophers men’s basketball team, recaps the first 15 games of their season and looks ahead to the next stretch of Big Ten teams on the schedule.

NOLAN O’HARA: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” presented by the Minnesota Daily. I’m your host Nolan O’Hara. It’s certainly been a while since our last podcast due to some unfortunate circumstances, but I’m glad to be back here in the studio and talk about the Gophers men’s basketball team. So, today I’m here with our basketball beat reporter AJ Condon. AJ, how’s it going?

AJ CONDON: Nolan, it’s going great. Had a good first week of classes and excited to be here. It has been alive and done this since like one of the first weeks of school with a football team. So, yeah, it’s good to be back.

O’HARA: It’s yeah, it’s been a little bit of a hiatus. So I’m glad to be back here in the podcast studio at the Daily and even in the middle of the first week of classes. And, you know, this is a fun team to talk about here. And there’s a lot to discuss because we’re already 15 games into the season. The Gophers right now they’re 17th in the nation. They’re 11-4, 4-4 in the conference. They have a couple of pretty impressive wins, most impressive is Iowa on Christmas day and then Michigan just a couple of weeks ago.

And they have an additional pair of ranked victories to go along with that, all four of their Big Ten victories were ranked opponents; this is just the way the conference has been. And they’re kind of where they are right now, in large part because the roster looks a lot different than it did last year. And the three transfers, Liam Robbins, Both Gach and Brandon Johnson are a reason why, they’ve all played a huge part in what the Gophers are trying to do this year. I mean, AJ, what have you just seen from them? And like, how would you assess their progression from where they started basically – with no training camp — to where they are now as the Gophers are 11-4?

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, you said it not having the training camp, unconventional preseason made it really hard, because it’s not just these three transfers, three new freshmen too now. But just having five new guys on the team made it really hard without having any sort of preseason. And you saw that a little with these early with these early games, especially with Liam Robbins. Right? 

O’HARA: Foul trouble

CONDON: Yeah, foul trouble. You have a seven-foot guy coming from Drake coming to the Big Ten. We know how the Big Ten plays, it’s aggressive. So those first few games Robbins was dealing with that foul trouble, he was getting two fouls early, saw the bench of the rest of the first half. And he wasn’t able to really get comfortable with the team. But then we got into conference play. And he got put up right against Kofi Cockburn and Luka Garza. And I think it was the two best bigs like in the conference for sure. And even in the even the whole league. So those were two big contests that he got to go up to right away. And he played pretty solid with them. And that kind of showed what he was capable of. And we’ve seen in the past few games. He’s playing outstanding right now he’s playing as our number two guy. And that’s exactly what they need.

Both, he’s kind of transitioned downwards on the offense side, but upwards on the defensive side. He’s kind of disappeared from the scoring part of the stat sheet, but not entirely disappeared from the stat sheet. [He’s] still moving the ball really well on offense. He’s able to get assists, and he’s still our number two defender, which Pitino likes to say about Gabe, that it doesn’t matter about his offense as long as he’s contributed on the defensive end, which him and Gabe both do very well. You know, doesn’t really care about that offense, because we have, they have Liam Robbins, they have Marcus Carr and like Brandon Johnson off the bench. He was incredible in that OT win. 

O’HARA: He was just hitting everything from three, he couldn’t miss. 

CONDON: Lights out, I think it was like eight or nine for four and overtime. So he’s provided really good minutes on the bench and even when he starts to so all three of those guys are big reason of why the Gophers sit at 11-4 right now. 

O’HARA: For sure. And yeah, like you mentioned with Robbins, I mean going up against Garza and Kofi right away. I mean, Garza is probably the best big I mean, for sure in the conference, probably in the country. I mean, that’s a that’s a tough way to jump in, especially transferring right away to a power five. And, you know, that’s kind of a good segue into just the Big Ten conference as a whole right now. I mean, looking at the rankings, six Big Ten teams in the top-25; three are in the top-10 with Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. And you know, you’re looking at that and the Gophers are 4-4 in conference play, they beat three of the top-25 teams here. You know, looking at it this 4-4 record, I mean, is that a win for this team? You know, you’d like to see better but just looking at their schedule, they played Iowa and Michigan twice, they had Wisconsin; they could almost as easily be 0-8 right now in the conference.

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, you said it perfectly. This, I think it is a huge win being 4-4, especially with the games that they have won, and I even throw out the 5-4 when you add Saint Louis, they’re a top-25 team. That’s it. That’s a huge win for them to even go to 5-4 in those first nine games. Obviously, Saint Louis isn’t the conference game, but I think where they’re at right now is a huge win. Looking at how good this conference is, at one point, there were eight ranked teams. I mean, this conference is deep. And it’s being shown across the across the conference. ranked teams are losing unranked teams. And Minnesota has now beaten two top-10 teams. So, it’s been pretty impressive. They have shown that, and we probably will get to this more later, but their home and away is very different.

So, that’s why I think they’re sitting right around where they should be at this middle of the ranked team, they aren’t a top-10 team until they can prove that they can play on the road, and their schedule is going to get a little easier. So, this is the time where they need to show that they can play on the road. Because once you get to the tournament, Big Ten’s and NCAA’s, you’re not playing in the Barn anymore. So, we’re, they’re going to have to figure that out. And there’s no fans. So I’m very confused to see how different these this team can be. When there’s not fans cheering, cheering against them. So once they figure that out, that’s when we can really see what team this is, how deep of a run they’re going to make Big Ten tournament and in the NCAA tournament.

O’HARA: It is really puzzling. The no fans and for whatever reason, yeah, they’re world beaters at home, they can’t win on the road. But like even in the conference play, I mean, from the beginning of conference play, they went 7-0 in the nonconference, you know, they got a good chunk of nonconference games, even in this pandemic season. And then first conference game against Illinois they did they didn’t look good. I mean, how much of a progression have you seen just since the start a conference play to now? 

CONDON: You have seen a lot. Those first few games, Marcus Carr was huge. Even though those nonconference games Marcus Carr was huge, he was dropping 25-30 points, and the team was kind of relying on him to get those points so they could win. And then once you get into Big Ten play, teams have seen how the Gophers play, they’re able to adjust, they’re able to, they can stop Marcus Carr, what Illinois did, they can win games. So what the Gophers pretty much did is they were able to get scores from other from other guys you saw with Brandon Johnson against Iowa, you’re seeing that from Liam Robins putting up 22 points on that game against Michigan. So what I’ve really seen from them is they’re able to get points elsewhere. And Marcus Carr still contributing. He’s not scoring 25-30 points, but he’s getting assists. He’s getting rebounds, he’s getting steals. So I think this whole team is just meshing together a lot better early. And I think that comes in big part because they’re all living together, too. They’re getting that off-court chemistry when they’re not practicing when that plane, I think that helps a lot. And they’re meshing really well together. And they’re playing like a real team.

O’HARA: Absolutely. Yeah, and I’m glad you brought up Marcus Carr too, because, you know, obviously can’t talk about this team without talking about Marcus Carr. And looking at his play, like you said, the beginning of the year, those nonconference games especially he was scoring, you know, going out there, scoring 30 points; he was doing everything for the team. And you could say it’s cooled off, but like you said, we also have seen some improvement from other players on the offensive end. I mean, as far as Marcus Carr, I mean, he’s definitely improved from last season. And I know Pitino doesn’t want him going out there and scoring 30 points to win a game because he said that on multiple occasions, I guess how would you assess his season even though it’s not quite the electrifying start that we saw in those nonconference games? 

CONDON: Yeah. So, what I see is that, like I said earlier, these teams are adjusting to guard Marcus Carr better because he is one of the better guards in this league. So what I really like to see about him is he’s so aggressive, whether he’s shooting 0-7, or he’s 5-7, he won’t go away from his shot. And my favorite thing about him is he’s able to create his own shot, he’s able to drive to the rim. He’s one of the best finishers I’ve seen in person, at least this year. He’s just really relentless at the rim, he’ll go to the rim, he’ll get one-on-one and the motion he shows he gets his team really fired up, with Jarvis Omersa opting out of the rest of season, he was their quote-unquote, hype guy. And they’ve kind of, they haven’t had that guy. They don’t have the handshake guy at the end of the games. But Marcus Carr is able to bring this team up and get them energized on any single play. His defense, has, he still has his breakdowns, but he can make steal on the play and him and Both run in the open court off in transition. So he’s been a very big part, even if he’s not scoring.

O’HARA: Right, for sure. Yeah, and I mean, the last few games in particular, you’ve seen Pitino, he’s like, “we can’t go out here and expect Marcus to score 30 and bail us out.” I mean, he’s been pretty adamant on that, and looking at the rest of the offense, you know, like you said, we’ve seen some more improvement from Robbins, he’s been contributing. One person who’s continued to struggle, Gabe Kalscheur; his shot is just from freshman year where it was, I mean, he was he was the team’s best three-point shooter and in the last two years, it’s really fell off. Like you said, you know, Pitino isn’t super worried, you know, because of his play on defense. But at what point is this this shooting become a concern, and has Pitino said, you know what they’re trying to do to kind of fix it. I don’t know. Is there a way to fix his shot?

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, like you said from freshman year, he was such a good shooter and we saw that last year, with him, sophomore year struggles, and now he’s struggling again junior year. And I’ve tried to get it out of Pitino. I’ve asked him at least two, maybe three times, and he gives me the same answer every time. And that’s he doesn’t care about Kalscheur’s offense with the winning plays he makes on defense, and he brings up these winning plays, he gets charges, he creates steals and they are late in games. So when he’s shooting 1-4 from three, even 3-10, those aren’t the best offensive outings, obviously. But what Gabe brings on the defensive side outweighs it 10 times over. So hopefully, there is a thing that Gabe can get in, whenever he puts up a shot I think, “If this one goes in, he’ll get hot,” and if he does get hot, I mean, this team is going to just improve so much if he can find a shot. But again, defense is huge. Pitino calls him the best perimeter defender, and he’s right about it. So I think if he can just keep playing defense, hopefully this defense can work into offense and vice versa. 

O’HARA: So, right for sure. I mean, looking at it, too. It’s like looking at this team. I mean, what kind of element do you think that would bring too, because it’s like you got Carr on the outside, Both can shoot, you know, we saw Brandon Johnson on Christmas Day; if Kalscheur could get his shot going, I mean, what could that that mean for this office? Really being able to spread the floor.

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, Pitino had a pretty funny quote, I think it was after last game, he said something around the lines of, “If you’re the worst shooting team, you shouldn’t be leading in three-point attempts.” So, I think that is the one thing this team’s missing is having a three-point shot. And if you’re able to spread the court more that’s just going to open up inside for Liam Robbins and we’ve already seen an improved more. And if you can get less double teams and just more one on one play, especially in these games upcoming when he doesn’t have guys like Garza and Kofi Cockburn, he’s going to be able to work these bigs a lot more. I mean, he does have a good challenge coming up against Purdue in the next second second game coming up, but against Trevion Williams, so he’s still going to have some challenges. But if you’re able to spread the court more, they’re going to open up things for not just Gabe’s shots, but for all four others on the court.

O’HARA: Yeah, looking to this, you know, next stretch of the schedule here. You know, we had the Nebraska game canceled this Wednesday, Gophers play Maryland on Saturday, Purdue, Rutgers and then Nebraska. That’s their next stretch, which is definitely the weaker part of this Big Ten schedule. I mean, what are you kind of expecting from this stretch here? What do you what do you hope to see from Minnesota, you mentioned playing better on the road – in addition to that, what are you expecting to see?

CONDON: Yes, that Nebraska game cancellation was pretty expected. Pitino noted about in his postgame conference about after the Michigan game. And that’s how they’ve been looking at this whole season is just day by day, just don’t think too far ahead, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. So that game got canceled. They have Maryland on this Saturday at home. They have beaten Illinois and Wisconsin, both were top-25 teams. So they are a good team. But what I’ve seen is they should win this game pretty handily. I think it should be by at least 10 points. Not saying if they win by five, it’s considered a flaw. A win is a win, especially in the Big Ten.

So, I’m expecting the Gophers to beat Maryland. And then you get Purdue who Purdue and Minnesota always have a pretty solid game even. Even if they’re not ranked. They have Zach Edey, their seven-foot-four center freshman, who has been fun to watch. And obviously I mentioned Trevion Williams. So they have some good guys on the team, even their guards. So that’s definitely a hard matchup, especially because it’s on the road. I still expect the Gophers to come out of this next stretch of three games given Nebraska and no, yes, Nebraska and Purdue are on the road, I still expect these three games to be wins. And I really expect that Minnesota as a team is going to start playing better on the road. Given that they’re not playing a top-25 team.

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah, and you know, bit of a down year for Purdue, they like they have some talent there. It’s just it’s not what we’ve seen from that program. I mean and talking about some good games, remember a couple years ago when Purdue was here at the Barn and the Gophers hung on and upset them and there was a court storm there. That was a that was a pretty exciting game. So there definitely could be another good game to look forward to there. And yeah, this this conference, it’s just so tough. Um, you know, Gophers are pretty likely a tournament team at this point, barring some kind of catastrophic collapse here midway through the season. You know, I don’t know just like looking at the conference. I mean, what kind of expectations do you have for how the Gophers can perform here. I mean, how many Big Ten teams do you think we’ll see? And where do you think seeding-wise Minnesota will end up?

CONDON: Yeah, so like I said earlier, there at one point was eight ranked teams in the Big Ten conference, I expect there to be eight if not nine, making that tournament, given it a 64 team [tournament], I mean, as of right now it is 64. Like Pitino says, go day by day, don’t look too far in the future. So if it succeeds at 64, I expect at least eight Big Ten teams making it. I’ve seen the Gophers specifically as high as a No. 4. But I expect them to be around Nos. 5-6-7. Who knows exactly where you’re going to land because there’s still a lot left. We’re over halfway, but there’s still, I think, 11 games left in the season. So a lot can still happen, especially I think, analysts want to see how the Gophers play on the road too before they can finally figure out what see they’re going to be. But looking around at a team like Michigan, what I’ve seen from them, I mean, Michigan, Minnesota is their only loss, and they look like a very good team, I think they should, for sure be in the Elite Eight, if not make it to the Final Four. And then Iowa, just with how good their shooting is, I expect them to also make the Elite Eight. Those are the two teams. I mean, obviously, I’m hoping the Minnesota Gophers can make around too but those are the two teams the Big Ten that I expect to go farther in the tournament.

O’HARA Yeah, you know, talking about Michigan looking like a Final Four team, I mean, that first game, I think Michigan, to me is the most impressive win for Minnesota this season. Because the Iowa game on Christmas Day, it, they shouldn’t have won. I mean, they were down by seven with seconds left on the clock. 

CONDON: I think it was 43 seconds. 

O’HARA: Yeah and somehow made a run and forced it to overtime. I mean that I feel like they shouldn’t have won that game. Michigan, when they played at Michigan, they didn’t look like they belonged in the same gym. And then they come out and they and they beat them pretty handily at the Barn. I mean, I don’t even know what to make of it talking about this home and away deal. I mean, you’re going to be writing a story on it here in not too long. But what I mean what is the deal? Why can’t they play on the road? I mean, there’s no fans, there’s nothing. There’s nothing pushing them along. And there’s nothing. Nobody jawing at them from the from the stands. Why can’t this team win on the road?

CONDON: Yeah, it’s something I still have to figure out. I know, I do have that story coming out next week. But it’s something I still even haven’t figured out. So I’m going to definitely look into that. And I do agree, though, that Michigan win was the best win the Gophers had this season, it was just absolutely crazy. The difference in teams we saw from Minnesota from that away game when I think we lost by 30. I it was hard to watch that at the end, but then beating them by I think it was 18. So we’re seeing very two different Gopher teams. And I know Pitino can’t be happy about how different they’re playing on the road versus home, given he’s probably very happy with how they’re playing at home. But something that they got to figure out is how to play on the road. Especially like we’ve all said, there’s no fans, it shouldn’t be that much different.

O’HARA: Right? It’s like the energy is zapped out of them. I think maybe the one exception being that Iowa game. I mean, that was pretty much a game till the end; Iowa kind of pulled away, but the road it’s just been it’s been a struggle. And for everybody listening to that it’s a plug for the story, you got to make sure to look for that, look for that when it comes out. And then, I guess you know to kind of wrap things up here, Maryland this Saturday. This one’s at the Barn. What kind of matchup do you think Minnesota has with Maryland and what’s your final score prediction?

CONDON: Yeah, so what I’ve kind of seen with Maryland is, like I said, what their two wins against top-25 teams, they’re a good team, there’s no reason to rule them out. Look at like the height wise sort of thing. The guards do have a little height on Carr and Kalscheur. But that’s given Both Gach has he’s 6’6” too. So he’s got some height on Carr and Kalscheur too. So I’m not too worried about that. I think overall, the guards are better. I just I think the Gophers are going to need Both to kind of come alive on the offensive side, given he’s a great defender, I think he just needs to get back to how he was playing the beginning of season, being involved in the offense and get involved in that transition offense with Marcus Carr. Because those two can run the floor. Like very, very good and very fast. And they can get you points of turnovers very easy or even along this, so I think that’s me a key in this game upcoming and then, like I talked about the Robbins having some easier matchups with the big guys. He has about three inches on Galin Smith. So I think when Robbins has these mismatches, it’s important to get him the ball, almost every possession. And if you can do that, and also have both get a little more active and offense, like I said, I think the Gophers should win by double digits and I’m hoping it’s around 10 to 12. 

O’HARA: Feeding Robbins is the key to Gophers win here?

CONDON: I think so yes.

O’HARA: For sure. Well, I think that’s I think that’s everything. Thank you for joining us. Good to be here and talk about some Gophers basketball.

CONDON: Yeah, thanks for having me.

O’HARA: In other news: While the Gophers football season is over, you can still catch former Gophers Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tyler Johnson this Sunday in the NFC Championship game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they take on the Green Bay Packers. Winfield and Johnson both make key plays in the Bucs 30-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints. 

The Gophers women’s basketball team bounced back from a three-game skid with a 76-71 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In her return to Nebraska, transfer Kayla Mershon scored six points, while Gadiva Hubbard led the team with 18. The Gophers will look to carry the momentum into their next Big Ten matchup against Penn State on Monday.

Last time out, the second-ranked Gophers women’s hockey team got swept in the border battle against the Wisconsin Badgers, but will look to bounce back from those losses next weekend when they take on Ohio State in Columbus. 

Similarly, the Gophers men’s hockey team has fallen back to earth, losing three of their last four games, including getting swept last weekend to Notre Dame after opening the season 10-0. No. 4 Minnesota will look to get back on track this Thursday and Friday when they take on Arizona State at Mariucci. 

The Gophers volleyball team is finally back in action this Friday and Saturday after what will be a 401-day hiatus. Minnesota will look to return to its Final Four form on Friday when they take on Michigan State in a two-game series to open the season. That’s all for this week. Make sure to check our website for more articles and analysis and tune in again next week for the ‘Weekly Rundown’ on all things Gopher sports.

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