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Gophers need to focus more on perimeter defense, coach says

Minnesota Gophers head coach Richard Pitino reacts to the game during the first period against USC Upstate at Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Nov. 10, 2017. Harrison Barden / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Before Richard Pitino's 14th-ranked Gophers improved their unbeaten mark to 4-0 Sunday afternoon, Nov. 19, the fifth-year head coach preached to his team the importance of guarding the 3-point line, a key to their success in reaching the NCAA tournament a year ago.

No longer, he told them, can we let teams win from the outside. Then a Western Carolina team with talent that didn't rival Minnesota's came out and shot 50 percent on their 22 3-point tries.

"We talked a lot about guarding the 3-point line," Pitino said of his speech before Sunday's game, "and certainly we did not execute that."

It didn't matter for the Gophers, who still won by 28 points. But as the schedule gets tougher for Pitino's squad, it's hard to imagine the same level of defense will translate to the same success.

As the Gophers resume this busy four-game week with a Tuesday tipoff against Alabama A&M, they can likely survive again without a dominating defense. But looming is a Saturday tilt in Brooklyn, N.Y., against 25th-ranked Alabama, which is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.

A season ago, defense was a staple of a surprising Gophers team, which limited opponents to a Big Ten-best 30 percent shooting from three-point range. Through four games this season, opponents are averaging 45 percent from 3-point range, and three teams have made at 11.

"We've got our hands up and then we drop our hands and guys are pulling," Pitino said. "So, we've got to get our hands more active, and then we've got to trust the guys behind us. (Teams) know that we're not playing good 3-point defense, so they're just shooting a lot of threes."

Limiting long-range shooting is especially important for this Gophers team because they're strong down low with Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch and power forward Jordan Murphy, named Big Ten player of the week twice already this season, on the blocks.

Those two tend to make up for defensive lapses by guards, as long as the other team isn't shooting well from 3-point range.

Early, the Gophers chalked up their challenges at defending the long ball to a small sample size and opponents simply hitting hard-to-make shots. That changed after Western Carolina hit 11 of 22 on Sunday.

"It's not always luck; at some point, it's just bad defense," Pitino said. "Our guys have to get better at that."

Dupree McBrayer took an early spot on the Gophers bench Sunday because the Western Carolina freshman he was guarding hit four threes in front of him in the first seven minutes.

McBrayer, a junior, said the Gophers have worked on drills to address the issue in practices.

"But we've just got to take the drills more seriously," he said. "We were kind of going through the motions. But now that teams have hit 14, 11 and 11 threes on us, I think we're going to come into practice (Monday) with a different mind-set getting out to the 3-point line.

"We've got new guys, so we've just got to get them up to speed that we were winning last season because of our 3-point shooting defense and rebounding. We as a team — and Murphy and Nate (Mason) as captains — need to make more of an emphasis on that so that doesn't hurt us down the line."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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