The Gophers men’s basketball team finally broke through its struggles Saturday and ended a winless start to Big Ten play with an 89-80 victory over Rutgers.
The much-needed victory killed one streak. Could it be the start of another?
The Gophers are eyeing a winnable five-game stretch that includes three games at home and all five against the bottom half of the Big Ten.
But do they have enough firepower — and remaining chances — to seize the preseason goal of making the NCAA tournament in coach Richard Pitino’s second year?
Considering his team’s situation, it’s a question that Pitino won’t even entertain.
“We can’t look at it like that,” he said before the Rutgers game. “We’re worried about the next opponent.”
But in the locker room Saturday afternoon, after that long-awaited victory, those four letters still slipped out from excited players.
More hope is on deck. The Gophers play at Nebraska on Tuesday, with memories of the Cornhuskers’ improbable run to the Big Dance last season still lingering in Big Ten minds.
After holding the distinction of being the unanimous last-place pick in the writers’ annual preseason ranking, Nebraska started 2013-14 Big Ten play with four losses immediately after falling to Cincinnati in its final nonconference game. That five-game losing streak, though, gave way to one of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball: in coach Tim Miles’ charmed second season, the Huskers regrouped and reeled off an 11-3 finish, knocking off ranked Ohio State and Wisconsin at home and Michigan State on the road in the process.
If the Gophers are going to take a similar path, they most likely need to take down last season’s comeback team Tuesday.
“We know we have to dig ourselves out of a hole,” senior guard Andre Hollins said Monday. “We can’t get complacent.”
It’s a surprise to most that the Gophers are even in this situation. Just before the start of the conference schedule, Pitino told the media he thought this team was “significantly better” than a year ago, when the Gophers won the NIT after narrowly missing the NCAA tournament. The Gophers promptly went on a five-game losing streak, going nearly three weeks without a victory.
“I’ve never said NCAA-or-bust to our team,” Pitino said Monday, noting that he believes last year’s squad “really, really overachieved.”
“The expectations are set by people, I don’t set them. I’d rather have high expectations than really low expectations to our team.”
The Gophers will try to create some Nebraska-like magic this season amid a much different conference landscape. This season, with the Big Ten more top-heavy, there are fewer signature victories to be had. And the Gophers’ remaining schedule doesn’t appear to allow for many opportunities.
The Gophers won’t play No. 13 Maryland again, their only meeting a 70-58 Terrapins victory. They won’t see previously ranked Ohio State a second time, after losing to the Buckeyes 74-72 in overtime. They play No. 23 Indiana (Feb. 15) and ascending Michigan State (Feb. 26) only one time apiece, and both on the road.
As the top 25 currently stands, there are just three more opportunities to snag a victory against a ranked team, two coming against league favorite Wisconsin. Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson, out because of a broken foot, is expected to miss five or six weeks and could be back for both games, Feb. 21 in Madison and March 5 at Williams Arena.
Before any of these signature opportunities, however, is the rest of January and the start of February, when the Gophers could make a run against their fellow lower-tier Big Ten teams. Are these Gophers capable of going on a win streak? Anything is possible, but at 1-5, Pitino is exercising caution.
“I never really knew what my expectations of this team were,” Pitino said. “I thought that we did a lot of good things last year but we needed to improve. I thought it was going to be a long process. A couple of things go differently and we’re looking at a different record. But they didn’t.
“We’ve really got to narrow our focus and not try to get it all back at once.”