Usually when Sun Belt teams play Power Five programs, they are the underdog. But that might not be the case Monday night when the Gophers host Texas-Arlington.
Of the two teams at Williams Arena, only one is projected to make the NCAA tournament. And it’s not the home team.
The Mavericks, who beat Ohio State and Memphis last season, return nearly intact from a 24-11 squad. They are the favorites to win the Sun Belt and have the conference Preseason Player of the Year in Kevin Hervey.
“I scheduled this team with the thought in mind that I was scheduling an NCAA tournament team,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to get a really good team, a veteran team, a team that a lot of people would stay away from playing.”
The Gophers won their opener Friday 86-74 over Louisiana-Lafayette, but they still have much to prove from a team that went 8-23 last season. Pitino called this a “big week” for his players, who will play three games in five days, finishing against Mount St. Mary’s on Wednesday and St. John’s on Friday. Arkansas is also on the schedule during a six-game homestand to open the season.
Pitino said he substituted for key players early in the second half Friday, when the Gophers were ahead by 27 points. He wanted to make sure they were rested going into a tough week, and the coach hopes the crowd is ready to help as well.
“I think our fans are awesome,” he said. “And I want them to understand that [Monday] we need them, because it’s going to be a war.”
Gophers coaches emphasized to their players at the start of practices last month they would get beat in their first two games against midmajor programs if they weren’t committed to getting better. Not that the returning players didn’t already know after losing to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee at home last season.
Gophers graduate transfer Akeem Springs had 15 points and seven rebounds for UW-Milwaukee against Minnesota a year ago. His former team also won at Wisconsin last season.
Springs and Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch have a unique perspective they shared with their teammates about how midmajors treat games against high-major conference opponents.
“It’s different being on the other side of it,” Springs said. “They’re coming with everything they’ve got, because if they can beat Minnesota from the Big Ten, it’ll be a big thing for them and their program.”
Lynch remembers helping Illinois State win at Northwestern as a freshman in 2013. It was the Redbirds’ first victory over a Big Ten foe in a decade.
“Even though Northwestern wasn’t the biggest school, it was still a big deal to play a Big Ten school,” Lynch said. “[He and Springs] both gave the same type of message to some of the guys who got to go to Big Ten schools out of high school. For midmajors coming into play the Big Ten or ACC, it’s a big deal. They prepare extremely hard for these games. It’s a big stage.”
Arlington opened with an 89-82 victory over Texas Southern on Saturday. Hervey, who missed the last 19 games last season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament, had 16 points and 11 rebounds off the bench. The Mavericks were 13-3 before Hervey suffered his knee injury.
Now with a veteran backcourt returning along with Hervey, the Mavericks are vying for their second NCAA tournament appearance in three years.
“We need to be ready,” Pitino said. “We need our fans. Our fans might not know too much about UT-Arlington. But everybody in our locker room knows this is going to be a very difficult game.”