Injuries to key players have helped sabotage a promising season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team, but coach Richard Pitino believes help is on the way — if not Wednesday, then soon.
Center Liam Robbins, a starter and key factor in five victories against Top 25 teams this season, could return for Minnesota’s 6 p.m. tip Wednesday at Penn State.
“Maybe there’s a chance we get Liam back. I don’t know,” Pitino said Tuesday. “That’s probably a game-time decision.”
Robbins sprained an ankle in a victory over then-No. 24 Purdue on Feb. 11 He was limited over his next three games, then missed the past two. All five were losses. He didn’t practice Monday.
Pitino also is hopeful that Gabe Kalscheur, a shooting guard who had played 88 straight games before breaking a finger on his shooting hand Feb. 14 at Maryland, will be back at least for the Big Ten tournament on March 10-14 in Indianapolis.
The Gophers (13-12, 6-12 Big Ten) enter Wednesday night’s game with losses in eight of their past 10 games. After a Jan. 16 victory over then-No. 7 Michigan, they were 11-4 with three victories over top-10 teams.
Pitino said Tuesday that wing Both Gach, a transfer from Austin, Minn., via Utah, has been bothered by a painful foot injury. He was averaging 15.3 points through six games but is averaging 2.2 over his past 11.
The coach characterized Gach’s injury as “foot pain that’s probably going to need surgery at the end of the year.”
“He’s fighting through that and he wants to play,” Pitino added. “So, we’ve had to limit a lot of his practice. It’s been hard for him to go two days in a row, and that’s hurt us. That’s hurt him. Obviously, as the season winds down we’ll kind of figure out the best plan for him moving forward.”
Robbins, a 7-foot transfer from Drake, was averaging 13.4 points and seven rebounds before hurting his ankle.
“I look at our whole league and say if you took two of their best players off the team, it would probably be the same,” Pitino said.
At 13-12 with two regular-season games remaining, the Gophers’ have an uphill climb to earn an NCAA tournament bid.
On the other hand, they have five Top 25 victories, including wins over No. 2 Michigan, No. 5 Iowa and No. 7 Ohio State that will look good to the selection committee — if they finish strong.
“The mentality hasn’t changed; it hasn’t shifted,” said junior guard Marcus Carr, who scored 41 points in last Saturday’s 78-74 loss at Nebraska. “A lot of people are definitely doubting us, counting us out now. We really think we can go get these next two and gain some momentum, go into the Big Ten Tournament strong and hopefully make a run.”
Pitino figured they have to beat Penn State and Rutgers this week, then win at least two games in the conference tournament. They also could win the tournament and earn the Big Ten’s automatic bid.
It’s a long shot. Neither CBS Sports nor ESPN had the Gophers in their brackets this week.
“We always have the choice today to have a great attitude, and we’re going to have that. Nobody can take that choice away from us,” Pitino said. “So, we’ll see if we can go get two in a row and then get some momentum into the conference tournament.”
One more shot?
The Gophers could miss the NCAA’s and still have a postseason. The National Invitation Tournament announced Monday it will host a 16-team field in a bubble in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Given the coronavirus pandemic, it’s no lock that Minnesota would accept a bid, but the Gophers won the NIT in Pitino’s first season as coach (2012-13), beating High Point, St. Mary’s Southern Miss, Florida State and Southern Methodist.