Men’s basketball: Gophers defense must improve for a Big Ten tournament run

The Big Ten men’s basketball tournaments has set up shop in the Gophers’ backyard, and the U will need to improve its defense if it wants to make it an entertaining multi-game run for the home team.

Minnesota’s defense has been a primary culprit in losing six of its final nine conference games, including a deflating four of the last five. The U’s adjusted offensive efficiency is respectable at 56th in the nation, but its defensive efficiency lags at 118th, according to KenPom on Wednesday.

“We got worn down,” head coach Ben Johnson said Tuesday of the Gophers’ most recent game. “I thought that played a part, whether that was mental lapse, mental fog, physically worn down in stretches.”

The Gophers allowed Northwestern to shoot a ridiculous 56 percent from 3-point range in the 90-66 blowout loss on Saturday. In three defeats, Illinois hung 105 points on the U on Feb. 28, while Iowa also reached 90 on Feb. 11and Purdue scored 84 on Feb. 15.

The last time the Gophers held an opponent under 70 points was the 59-56 win over Michigan State at Williams Arena on Feb. 6. The ninth-seeded Gophers (18-13, 9-11 Big Ten) will play the eighth-seeded Spartans (18-13, 10-10) at 11 a.m. Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten tournament at Target Center.

Michigan State beat Minnesota 76-66 in East Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 18, so Thursday’s game serves as a rubber match. The winner will play top-seed Purdue (28-3, 17-3) at 11 a.m. Friday.

Spartans guard Tyson Walker took over late in the January matchup against the Gophers and finished with 21 points. He had 20 points at The Barn last month.

Johnson looked at defensive letdowns in the last two losses — to Indiana and Northwestern — that snowballed into bigger deficits.

“The one or two lapses all of sudden now turns into — it was a manageable game — and they go on a run, especially if they can shoot it from three,” Johnson said.

Minnesota gives up 36 percent shooting from 3-point range this season, which ranks 316th in the nation.

“I thought we needed to get mentally back right and back fresh, physically back fresh,” Johnson said about a reset before the conference tournament. “Because those segments where, again, your defense gives up a play or two and then you try to get it back with your offense. There is that push-pull. It just doesn’t work.”

The Gophers have only one injury concern going into the Spartans game, Johnson said. Forward Josh Ola-Joseph (concussion protocol) missed the end of the Indiana game and Northwestern game but has been improving.

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