Monday, Mar. 1, 2021

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Gopher Road Woes Mark Pitino Era


Coach Richard Pitino’s Golden Gophers basketball team lost 86-71 at Iowa yesterday and has dropped six consecutive Big Ten regular season road games dating back to last season. Pitino, now in his eighth season as Minnesota’s coach, has been unable to find success on the road in conference games except for the 2016-2017 season when the Gophers were 5-4.

Pitino’s career record in Big Ten regular season road games is 14-55, a 20 percent winning percentage. Most years the Gophers have won only a couple games away from Minneapolis and that goes a long way toward explaining the season-ending conference finishes of Pitino teams. In seven full seasons he has a fourth place finish in the conference standings (2017), with the next best results two years (2014 and 2019) when the Gophers placed seventh.

Big Ten title contenders win on the road, as history shows. When the Gophers won conference championships in 1982 and 1997, they lost two away games each season. Despite highly competitive road competition in the Big Ten last year, Wisconsin managed a 5-4 record on the way to a share of the conference title.

The Gophers are 10-4 overall and 3-4 in Big Ten games. Their four losses (all on the road) against Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin have been double-digit defeats. Minnesota has been way behind in road games and often because of poor defense and undisciplined offense. The Gophers have also been unable to match the energy of opponents on the road.

Pitino gave his team higher marks for its effort yesterday against Iowa than the other three road losses. “I thought this game was totally different than the other three losses. I thought we did a great job fighting back. We just took some bad shots down the stretch and weren’t able to get stops.”

Iowa quickly increased a 39-37 halftime lead to double digits for most of the second half but the Gophers were down by five points with about five minutes to play. Then Minnesota didn’t show enough patience on offense, rushed shots and got three-point happy. After the game Minnesota forward Brandon Johnson acknowledged the Gophers can “fall in love” with three-point shots at the expense of running an efficient offense. “It’s something we gotta fix as a group for sure,” he said.

Richard Pitino

In less than a month the Gophers have played seven consecutive conference games against nationally ranked opponents, including home wins against Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa. Pitino said on his KFAN postgame radio show yesterday the stretch has been a grind. “We wore these guys down. That schedule was as hard a schedule as you’re going to see. …”

The Gophers will take three days off to rest before preparing for Michigan at home Saturday. This is one of Pitino’s more talented teams and has been ranked among the top programs in the country but the road failures have been glaring. Even the team’s most talented players have struggled away from home including preseason All-Big Ten guard Marcus Carr, and center Liam Robbins who was out played in the last two games by national player of the year candidates Hunter Dickinson of Michigan and Luka Garza from Iowa.

“Obviously you got an undefeated (10-0) Michigan coming up, but these guys (the Gophers) got better,” Pitino said on the postgame show. “We need a little break and get back to work.”

Worth Noting

Minnesota native Brian Dutcher, the San Diego State coach who has a special opt out in his contract that would allow him to coach the Gophers if the job opened, has won 13 consecutive regular season road games dating back to 2019.

Scott Ellison, the personable Gophers senior associate athletics director in charge of facilities and capital projects, retires at the end of this week after more than 32 years at the U. Ellison has worked on about $600 million in capital projects including the construction of TCF Bank Stadium and the Athletes Village. Long time assistant Jeff Seifriz will succeed Ellison.

Gophers’ offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. might have been a candidate for the head coaching job at Boise State filled last week with the hiring of Andy Avalos. If Sanford, who has Boise State ties as a former Bronco OC, had been hired that may have opened the door for the return of long time P.J. Fleck OC coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. He left Minnesota after the 2019 season for Penn State but was dismissed last week.

Sanford’s offense had its struggles last season, showing inconsistency and veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan regressing. Sanford came to Minnesota after career moves that included only two years as head coach at Western Kentucky before he was fired, and serving as offensive coordinator at Utah State in 2019 where quarterback Jordan Love went from 32 touchdown passes and six interceptions in 2018 to 20 TD throws and 17 interceptions.

Morgan, a redshirt junior, was being mentioned a year ago as a future late first round or second round NFL Draft choice but for now that looks unlikely and he is expected to return as the Gopher starter in 2021.

If the Vikings were going to part ways with head coach Mike Zimmer it almost certainly would have happened by now. Pioneer Press columnist Charley Walters wrote this on Sunday: “But next year is clearly make or break for the 64-year-old grump.”

Local connection: 1983 Waseca High School grad Mike Larson was the advance scout for Tommy Lasorda’s 2000 U.S. Olympic baseball team. Lasorda, who died last week, managed that team to a surprise gold medal and was the long time colorful manager of the Dodgers.

Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twin, played on the 2000 Olympic team and credited the experience with giving him confidence. John Manuel, now a Twins scout and once editor-in-chief of Baseball America, wrote about that American team who many observers thought would lose out to Cuba.

Versatile calendar: the men’s Gopher hockey team, now 11-1-0 after splitting a weekend series with the Badgers, has played games every day of the week because of TV programming.

John Drum, the newly named general manager of U.S. Bank Stadium, is the latest “Behind the Game” guest with co-hosts Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. Drum, who talks on the show about the post-pandemic future for the stadium, worked with Robertson in the mid-1990s as part of the Angels organization in Anaheim. The program is available for viewing on the “Behind the Game” YouTube Channel and via cable access throughout the state.

Hoping for the best of transitions for Susan Wilkinson who has moved into a Bloomington long-term care facility. Susan is the terrific wife of Mike Wilkinson, author of the Murray Warmath biography, The Autumn Warrior.

Rob Hunegs, the popular owner of Twin Cites Sports Cards in Golden Valley, is home after a 12-day battle with COVID-19 in the hospital.

Thoughts of friends are with former Gophers football player Joe Pung who was diagnosed in 2019 with stage 3 melanoma and is undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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