Barely into his second season at the helm of Minnesota basketball, coach Richard Pitino already has a go-to adage worthy of a conference veteran:
“That’s life in the Big Ten,” Pitino said for the second time in three games Tuesday night, after the Gophers failed to make good on a double-digit comeback against Ohio State.
Minnesota fans are now hoping the team can pull off another comeback — a more substantial one that involves Big Ten victories and saving its season. But with history as a guide, the Gophers could be hard-pressed to reach the main goal for Pitino’s Year Two: the NCAA tournament. One season after narrowly missing the tournament with an 8-10 Big Ten record, the Gophers dropped to 0-3 to start the season after the 74-72 overtime loss to the Buckeyes.
The Gophers (11-5 overall) never have started 0-3 in the Big Ten and gone on to make the NCAA tournament. In the six seasons that began with Big Ten losing streaks of more than two games, the Gophers finished with a losing conference record each time. The last Minnesota team to start poorly, Tubby Smith’s 2011-12 squad that opened 0-4 in conference play, won six Big Ten games and landed in the NIT.
Of the 36 at-large teams in last season’s Big Dance, only two started their conference slates 0-3 or worse: North Carolina (0-3 in the ACC) and Nebraska (0-4 in the Big Ten). The Tar Heels used huge nonconference victories over Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State and a strong ACC finish to overcome their slow start, and the Huskers won eight of their last nine regular-season games.
The Gophers will now need a hot streak of their own.
“It’s really early,” senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu said. “There are not teams too far ahead of us in the Big Ten race, so we’ve got a lot of games to play. We can go on a streak at any time. We’ve just got to keep chipping away.”
That’s all true. If the Gophers rebound from the sluggish early stretch, these three losses could be meaningless in March. For now, though, they sting.
The Gophers had a winnable game in their grip at Purdue when a 13-point lead fizzled in the final five minutes. They showed scrappy moments in their next bout, at Maryland, but the Terrapins’ superior talent ultimately claimed the victory. Back at home vs. Ohio State, the Gophers trailed by as many as 12 in the second half but charged back to force overtime. They had the ball with a chance to tie or win, but they couldn’t get off a good look.
On Saturday, a Minnesota team that won only two conference games on the road last season will have to try to flip the momentum at Michigan. The Gophers then return home to face an Iowa team that seems to be only getting better.
“I’m still positive that we’re heading in the right direction,” Pitino said. “It’s disappointing, certainly, but we’ve just got to rebound and stay positive.”