MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — With eight losses in its last nine games, Minnesota’s once-bright season has taken a dim turn.
Missing two of their original starters, with a third playing through a persistent injury, the Gophers have been forced to endure another winter of growing pains they appeared to be past with last year’s breakout fourth-place finish in the Big Ten.
The Gophers began the third-to-last week of conference play fresh from another late blown lead in a three-point overtime loss at Michigan on Saturday. Guard Isaiah Washington scored 26 points, his second straight career high on the way to the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award, but with only seven players seeing action the Gophers were again undermanned.
“We’ve got to play close to perfect. That’s evident,” head coach Richard Pitino said. “That’s hard to put on your guys, but that’s the hand you’re dealt.”
While center Reggie Lynch remains suspended from competition, with his appeal of expulsion from school for alleged sexual misconduct still pending, the status of small forward Amir Coffey is unclear after an aggravation of the shoulder injury that kept him out of five games last month. After returning for two contests, Coffey has missed the last two games. Pitino said on Monday he’s not sure if Coffey will play on Tuesday against Nebraska. Shooting guard Dupree McBrayer has been limited by a stress reaction in his shin, and he has only scored 43 points over the last five games.
“We just try to go out there and make the least amount of mistakes that we can,” McBrayer said, adding: “We’re trying to change the story, so we’re just going to keep working hard. There’s a Cinderella story behind this, so we’re just going to make the good come out of it.”
Just one month ago, before a university investigation led to Lynch being waylaid, the Gophers were on an NCAA Tournament track with a 13-3 record and a diverse lineup despite tenuous depth. Now they’re just trying to string together enough wins to avoid being passed over for the NIT.
“The margin of error is very small,” said forward Davonte Fitzgerald.
Washington joined the Gophers this season as the most acclaimed recruit Pitino has brought in since taking over the program almost five years ago. The New York high school player of the year came with a cult following stemming from his signature finger-roll layup.
Before the two games last week, Washington had played a total of 20 minutes with just six points over the previous four contests. Now Pitino has no choice but to use him extensively, his options around senior point guard Nate Mason exhausted. Against Michigan, Washington shot 11 for 16 from the field and focused his shot selection around the basket.
“He’s just got really, really bad habits, and he’s a freshman and it’s going to take some time,” Pitino said. “If there is a silver lining in all this, it’s we’re going to need him to play more and he’s going to have to figure it out.”
Washington is shooting only 20.3 percent (13 for 64) from 3-point range this season.
“If he continues to understand where his bread is buttered, he’s a terrific passer,” Pitino said. “He needs to continue to go by people and make plays, so I think he’s getting it, I really do, slowly but surely.”
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