Scoggins: Confounding Gophers men's basketball team defies explanation

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Chip Scoggins, Star Tribune
·4 min read
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The Gophers men's basketball team has completed three-quarters of its season, and never has one of Richard Pitino's squads been this maddening to figure out.

Rare is the occasion when you're not sure if a team is underachieving or overachieving.

On Saturday, the NCAA men's basketball selection committee released its projected Top 16 seeds for the upcoming tournament. Michigan and Ohio State were slotted as No. 1 seeds. The Gophers have wins over both of those teams, one by 17 points and one by 18.

Pitino's crew has five wins vs. ranked opponents, which is tied for most in college basketball and ties a school record. Impressive stuff.

Now for the smudge marks on their résumé …

The Gophers are the only Big Ten team without a road win; they are 0-7 away from Williams Arena, with six of those losses by double digits. Their average margin of loss on the road is 16 points after Sunday's dud at Maryland.

Trying to make sense of it falls in line with my attempt to describe abstract art or understand advanced mathematics. The longer I stare at it, the less certain I become about what I'm looking at.

Let's give the competition some credit for that inconsistency since the Big Ten is the best conference in the nation. With the exception of Michigan, the rest of the league is taking turns clobbering one another.

Ordinarily, an occasional hiccup can be explained away as ebbs and flows of a season. Very few teams perform at peak level all the way through without interruption. Bad games just happen sometimes.

But this many? And all on the road?

The Gophers look like two different teams with two personalities. At home, they show fight and find ways to win, even when their shooting goes sideways (which is frequent). On the road, they are something else completely. Their energy lags. They fall into deep holes. And the offense turns into a bad case of dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, launch a three-pointer.

The statistical contrast is dramatic. The Gophers average 80.6 points at home, 63.5 on the road.

They have made nearly as many free throws at home (283) as their opponents have attempted (291), an indication of them being more assertive when they are in the Barn.

Their home-vs.-road discrepancy is especially confounding when factoring pandemic restrictions on fan attendance. Road environments are not loud or intimidating or distracting. The vibe in every arena is basically neutral. The only advantage for the home team is familiarity of shooting background.

Marcus Carr has become the face of the two extremes. The senior point guard averages 22.9 points per game at home but only 12.3 on the road, with a wide gap in shooting percentages as well.

Carr at the Barn barely resembles Carr on the road, which is unexplainable because he plays like one of the best point guards in college basketball when he's rolling. The Gophers need him to pack his best version when he leaves for road trips.

Ultimately, it falls on Pitino and his staff to solve this. For whatever reason, his players just don't respond the same in road games. Pitino has to try something different because these road struggles have become part of his team's identity.

How do you fix shooting this late in the season though? That's a problem. The Gophers are not a good shooting team, but they operate like they are.

They rank 316th nationally (out of 340 teams) in three-point accuracy and 21st in three-point attempts, which is a formula that does not align.

Pitino has voiced his displeasure with that ratio, but nothing changes. His players keep firing away. They either have no Plan B or Pitino's message isn't getting through to his players.

And yet, they win at home, occasionally against really strong teams. On the road, they lose in lopsided fashion.

The Gophers are still in line to make the NCAA Tournament, but whatever happens there depends on Carr and Co. playing like they do at the Barn. That's a weird thing to say, but it makes complete sense with this team.