Close loss fuels optimism for Gophers against Ohio State

The Gophers, led by guard Andre Hollins' 24 points, nearly pulled off a major upset at Michigan State last Saturday, falling in overtime 87-75.

Mike Carter/Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — There’s no column in the standings for moral victories, and Richard Pitino knows that. So while the first-year Gophers coach nearly led his team to an upset victory over Michigan State, he admits that a loss is a loss.

Yet there’s something to be said about Minnesota’s performance at Michigan State last Saturday, as the unranked Gophers forced overtime against the fifth-ranked Spartans before falling 87-75.

With another tough test on the horizon, Pitino must now balance his team’s frustration with the optimism that this Minnesota squad can play with anybody in the Big Ten.

"Michigan State may be the best home-court advantage in all of college basketball, and we looked like veterans who were unfazed. That was great," Pitino said. "But we made a lot of crucial mistakes down the stretch in overtime, especially, just not executing. . . .  I think we somewhat blew a bit of an opportunity, but we’ve also got great potential."

Minnesota has a chance to once again show off that potential on Thursday when No. 11 Ohio State comes to Williams Arena for the second of four straight games against ranked opponents for the Gophers. While Minnesota will have the benefit of their own home-court advantage — which Pitino hopes will be the best it’s been all year Thursday — nothing will come easy against an Ohio State team that ranks high nationally in almost every defensive category.

Spartans 87, Gophers 75 (OT)

The Buckeyes allow just 57.6 points per game, tied for the sixth-fewest in all of Division I college basketball. Helping lead that defensive charge for Ohio State has been senior guard Aaron Craft, whom Gophers guard Malik Smith called "probably the best defender in college basketball."

Craft has been a defensive menace for the Buckeyes since his freshman year, perhaps making Gophers fans — and coaches — think that he’s been at Ohio State forever.

"He has been. I’m going to investigate that," Pitino joked.

All kidding aside, the defensive play of Craft — 17th in the nation with 2.47 steals per game — and junior guard Shannon Scott have been huge for the Buckeyes. Ohio State has held opponents to just 26.9 percent from 3-point range.

For the Gophers, who aren’t afraid to fire from downtown, Ohio State’s perimeter defense will be a new test. Yet even against a stingy 3-point defense, Minnesota won’t be afraid to shoot.

"Bombs away. We’ll keep shooting it," Pitino said. "We’re always going to shoot threes, certainly. Their strength is guarding the perimeter. That’s our strength. Now we’ve got to try to go inside more, certainly, because Craft and Shannon Scott are two of the best perimeter defenders in the country."

After Minnesota plays host to Ohio State on Thursday, the Gophers have two more tough tests when they travel to face No. 14 Iowa on Sunday and come back to face No. 3 Wisconsin at Williams Arena next Wednesday. It’s perhaps as tough a stretch as any Big Ten team will face this year, and Minnesota almost escaped the first of the four with a win.

But "almost" doesn’t count in college basketball, though, which is why the Gophers are hoping to turn the tables against their second ranked opponent in as many games.

"We hung in there with a top-five team," Smith said of the Michigan State loss. "At the end of the day, we think we’re supposed to win every game. We’re not going to take moral victories away from that. We’re just going to come in and work harder and try to beat a top-15 team (Thursday)."

Gophers make Eliason fourth captain: One day before Thursday’s game against Ohio State, Pitino announced that junior center Elliott Eliason was named the team’s fourth captain, joining seniors Austin Hollins and Maverick Ahanmisi and junior Andre Hollins.

The 6-foot-11 Eliason is averaging a team-high 8.6 rebounds per game along with 6.5 points and 2.7 blocks and has been a big reason for Minnesota’s 13-4 start to the season. Those numbers have all increased since Eliason’s sophomore year, and that improvement hasn’t been lost on his teammates.

"When I first got here in June, honestly he really wasn’t that good," Smith said. "But day in and day out, the coaches worked with him. He’s probably our best post player. . . . His moves are polished. He’s probably one of the most improved players in the Big Ten."

Pitino noted the growth not only in Eliason’s play on the court but also his confidence since Pitino took the job in April.

"He’s becoming so much more vocal," Pitino said. "I said, ‘Elliott, you probably on a consistent basis are the top two on our team in working hard every single day and leading every single day. I think you deserve this. Now certainly don’t get complacent. Now you’ve got a little bit of a role on your hand that you need to live up to.’"

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