Before the Gophers men’s basketball team went to play Arkansas on Saturday, coach Richard Pitino talked about making sure his players knew the difference between perception and reality.
Last year’s Gophers team engineered a surprise turnaround and made the NCAA tournament. Because the Gophers already have been told they are good, this year presents a new challenge to his team.
“People are telling us we’re good. So the illusion of people telling us that we’re good should not mean that we’re good,” Pitino said Friday. “We can’t fall into the trap of the illusion that just because people tell us we’re going to beat Miami at home because it’s a great atmosphere. That’s not really why you’re going to win. So it is a challenge. I found it a lot easier when people told us we were going to stink to get everyone to band together.”
Big man Reggie Lynch talked Friday of “not thinking teams are going to roll over” for the Gophers just because they’re ranked.
“We need to flush that down the toilet,” he said, “and understand every team is going to try and come at us this year.”
As always, though, this is easier said than done.
The Gophers went out and lost by 16 at Arkansas — their third loss in four games. If Pitino was concerned that the team’s presence in the Associated Press Top 25 was creating an illusion among his players that the team has it all figured out, he shouldn’t have to worry about that when the new poll comes out Monday.
The Gophers aren’t the only team going through this. Countless teams in countless sports, both locally and nationally, have struggled through an adjustment period following unexpected success.
The Wild set a franchise record for points last season and returned several core players off that team. Several preseason predictions labeled the Wild a Stanley Cup contender this season. That may well be the case, but Minnesota has struggled to find any sort of consistency this season.
The 2015 Twins won 83 games, leading to major optimism entering 2016. That team proceeded to win 59 games, getting General Manager Terry Ryan fired in the process. The 2017 squad had virtually no expectations and wound up winning 85 games and making the postseason, setting up a 2018 season in which the Twins likely will have to battle the illusion of being good.
The Vikings have done a great job this season of remaining legitimately good instead of falling into a trap of complacency that can come with success. But on Sunday, they lost for the first time since Oct. 1. There will be some who will wonder if it was all an illusion, even though that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The only pro team in this market that has managed to sustain excellence recently and avoid the illusion of being good is the Lynx. But for all their greatness over the past seven seasons, even the Lynx haven’t managed to win back-to-back titles — garnering championships in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
It’s hard when everyone knows you’re supposed to be good. The internal struggle is often more difficult that the external one. We’ll see how it all plays out for a bunch of local teams this winter.