Path gets no easier for Minnesota: No. 3 Ohio State is next

NCAA Basketball

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino hopes the fans get behind the Golden Gophers when they host No. 3 Ohio State in Minneapolis on Sunday.

The Gophers played a tough nonconference schedule before losing their Big Ten opener 72-52 at Iowa on Monday to fall to 4-5 overall.

Ohio State (9-0, 1-0 Big Ten) is the lone unbeaten team in the conference.

“We need a great environment at the Barn. We need to win these home games,” Pitino said, referring to Williams Arena. “The season’s not dead yet. We’ve still got a lot of basketball to play, but we’re going to have to give them our best shot because they’re really, really good.”

The Buckeyes are coming off an emotional stretch last week in which they went on the road to defeat then-No. 7 North Carolina 74-49 before coming home to hand Penn State a 106-74 defeat on Saturday, marking the first time in nearly 13 years they eclipsed the century mark in Big Ten play.

“They have some talented younger guys, some older guys,” Pitino said. “People anticipated them being good, obviously not this good this early. We’ve got a tough test.”

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann knows why the Buckeyes performed so well in back-to-back games four days apart.

“Leadership. Leadership,” he said. “I learned that I think that our leadership in that area is really good. That’s maturity, and that’s leadership.”

It doesn’t hurt that junior forward Kaleb Wesson (6-9, 255) continues to make his offseason shedding of about 30 pounds pay off. He is more mobile and has better endurance than his first two seasons.

He had 28 points and 10 rebounds against Penn State for his third double-double of the season. He made 4 of 6 from 3-point range.

“What makes Kaleb different and special is his ability to play out on the perimeter, to play through him some as a passer in the high post or outside the three to pick and pop with him. That’s his strength,” Holtmann said.

“That’s who he is as a player. He’s unique in that sense. It’s not always easy to play bully ball with some of the teams we play consistently. That’s why we try to move him around, because of his talent,” Holtmann said.

Wesson leads the Buckeyes with 14.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He opted to return to Ohio State instead of entering the NBA draft, unlike Minnesota’s Amir Coffey, who averaged 16.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists as a junior for the Gophers last season. He is now with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Minnesota has struggled to replace him this season.

“I thought Amir would be a senior,” Pitino said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t win games. I’m not making excuses.

“I don’t feel great that we have five losses, but if you take a step back, we’ve got 19 more league games, and we’ve got Oklahoma State and (Florida International) left. We’ve got a lot of unbelievable opportunities.”

The first one is Sunday.

–Field Level Media

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