Searching for the kind of morale that evaded his team in recent weeks, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino treated his players to a night out at Buffalo Wild Wings after their film session on Monday night.
But as the squad downed plates of chicken wings, the Big Ten Network’s conference awards show blared on big-screen televisions hanging over the players, announcing that for the second consecutive season no Gophers were honored, outside of a pair of honorable mentions for seniors Andre Hollins and Mo Walker.
One after another, some other team’s player was named. Many times, the Gophers were the team shown getting scored on in that player’s highlights.
“ ‘Can we change the channel?’ ” Pitino recalled joking. “It was a little depressing.”
As the Big Ten tournament begins Wednesday in Chicago, the coach and his players are hoping to somehow do just that: broadcast a very different show than the one that’s been playing over and over since the start of January.
Two and a half months ago, Pitino sat in front of a microphone at Williams Arena and announced he believed his team was better, “much better,” than last year’s squad that seized the NIT title after narrowly missing the NCAA tournament. They were capable of taking the next step, he said.
But lofty expectations wrought from a promising group of veterans plunged after an 0-5 conference start. The Gophers were buried in the standings by a cascade of close losses, ultimately dropping eight of 11 games this season decided by six points or fewer. On their home court, they managed to go just 4-5 in Big Ten games. The senior class, considered the team’s strength, never lived up to its billing.
Now, after a crushing loss to Penn State on Senior Day, the tumble has amounted to this: The 11th-seeded Gophers are playing Wednesday against last-place Rutgers as one of the conference’s bottom four seeds.
The NCAA tournament is all but out of reach. The Gophers almost surely would have to sweep through five games in five days, winning the tournament final Sunday to get in.
Even the NIT is in doubt. In recent years, the secondary postseason tournament hasn’t looked kindly on teams that have fewer than eight victories and lack multiple ranked victories.
On Sunday, after D.J. Newbill’s buzzer-beating three-pointer sank the Gophers on their home court one final time, the team huddled in the locker room, looking at the different draws they could get in the league tournament, analyzing the last-ditch opportunities to salvage the season.
“We’ll have to see what we’re made of,” Hollins said. “We’ll have to bounce back and band together. We’ve been tested before, and things like this have happened before. It can only make us stronger. It’s how we respond, going in and knowing that it’s a potential NCAA berth if we win five games. So we have to really band together.”
Most agree the Gophers were expected to be in a much different position this week. After opening with an 81-68 loss to No. 8 Louisville in Puerto Rico, and later a tough loss to St. John’s in the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York, the Gophers mostly dominated a weak nonconference slate. They were playing faster. Their offense looked dynamic and diverse. Even the defense looked greatly improved, with Minnesota leading the nation in steals.
The feel-good story lines hit a wall once Big Ten play began. The cast of veterans had flashes of excellence but rarely put it all together for a good team performance. Body language eroded. The statistics — the Gophers still sit at 16th nationally in assists per game and fifth nationally in steals — became anecdotes, rather than tenants of a winning season.
As his team’s record crumbled, Pitino emphasized the idea of luck in close losses, and hedged from his earlier statements about improvement before the new year.
“I always knew it would be tough,” he said recently. “I didn’t know what to expect for the season.”
Few would have expected this: the Gophers watching as the Big Ten awards show unintentionally picked apart their shortcomings.
After all these missed opportunities, opponent buzzer-beaters and just-out-of-reach final scores, they have only one long-shot chance left.
“Just fuel to the fire for us,” Walker said. “We’re just going to take it in and try to do something about it this weekend.”