Gophers step up in weight class with first game vs. power conference team

In a typical season, coach Richard Pitino would see how his Gophers stacked up against at least a few other power conference programs outside of the Big Ten.

Last season, it happened six times, including three of the Gophers’ first four games. They went 2-4, but it helped prep them for conference play.

In a college basketball season affected by a pandemic this year, the Gophers lost some marquee nonconference games, including at home against Mississippi State this month.

That left Pitino with Tuesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against Boston College (1-3) at home as the only major conference nonleague opponent for the Gophers (4-0) this year, joining four other Big Ten teams that have only one such nonconference game on the schedule this season.

The last time the Gophers had only one major conference opponent in nonconference play was 1992-93.

“How do we find a way with six new players to develop some type of identity during a pandemic?” Pitino said. “Normally that takes time. We don’t have time right now, so we have to figure that out.”

Pitino’s nonconference schedule ranks 219th nationally, according to college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy. But the Gophers have already been challenged. It took a late three-pointer from Marcus Carr to beat Loyola Marymount 67-64. They trailed North Dakota by 11 points in the first half Friday before rallying for a 76-67 victory.

Wisconsin-Green Bay, Loyola Marymount twice and North Dakota have revealed some major issues early. The Gophers have to get tougher on the boards — Loyola Marymount outrebounded them and grabbed 18 offensive boards in one game. They aren’t a great shooting team yet — 12th in the Big Ten with only six three-pointers per game and 11th in three-point percentage, at 29.6. They also need more scoring balance, especially from an inside presence.

Carr, an All-Big Ten preseason point guard, is second in the Big Ten with 26.5 points per game. But Utah transfer Both Gach led the team with 21 points and nine rebounds vs. North Dakota. Carr and Gach have been a definite strength so far, but getting them consistent help with fellow starters Gabe Kalscheur, Liam Robbins and Brandon Johnson could be a key to playing well against tougher competition.

Kalscheur shot 41% from three-point range as a freshman, but it dipped to 34% last season and through four games as a junior sits at 12% (2-for-17). However, he has made up for the poor shooting with key defensive plays and foul shooting.

“I’m not going to say his shooting percentage is irrelevant,” Pitino said. “He knows he’s a better shooter than this. … He’s got a coach who believes in him. I’m going to play him through shooting slumps. I don’t care as long as he defends, as long as he plays hard, as long as he’s about the right things.”

Robbins avoided foul trouble Friday for the first time this season, but the 7-foot Drake transfer still had trouble finishing at the rim (4-for-11 shooting). Until he finds his rhythm offensively, he hopes his defense will be a major factor. He had five blocks vs. North Dakota.

“Shot blocking is something I excelled at especially at Drake,” Robbins said. “I got back into a groove [Friday] just because I wasn’t getting dumb fouls early on. And that allowed me to be more aggressive blocking shots because I wasn’t worried about being out for a 10-minute stretch.”

Johnson and Robbins had to overcome preseason ankle injuries, but Johnson sees their last game as a sign of growth after they each played 27 minutes. Johnson, a transfer from Western Michigan, had his best game yet with 15 points, three steals and two blocks against the Fighting Hawks.

“It’s definitely going to be very important for the next game,” Johnson said of avoiding foul trouble. “I try to impact the game as much as possible on both ends of the floor. With [he and Robbins] at 100 percent strength, I feel like we can contend with anybody.”