Considering the circumstances, there were points during Wednesday’s postgame that a blind observer might have figured the Gophers came out of Michigan with a win instead of a 74-69 loss.
When a team loses 11 of 12 games, eight straight and starts the Big Ten slate 0-7, positive moments are few and far between, and two games of decent play – that is, dropping a pair of games by a total of 12 points instead of 50 – nearly seem like reason for celebration.
But don’t get things twisted. The Gophers are still hurting, and still extremely anxious for their first victory in more than a month. They might have their best league chance yet when Illinois (9-10; 1-5) comes to town on Saturday (7:30 p.m.; BTN). The Las Vegas odds aren’t set yet, but it will likely be the closest Minnesota has been to being favored since the start of conference play. Analyst Ken Pomeroy does not favor the Gophers, but he has them losing by just 49 percent odds.
“We’re all watering at the mouth right now,” freshman Dupree McBrayer said. “We all want our first win. It’s going to happen soon and I can’t wait.”
There’s a good chance Minnesota will play in front of another decent crowd on Saturday. Despite the Gophers’ struggles, fans have shown up in mostly respectable numbers, a home-court advantage that Pitino lauded again Friday. But while frustrated Gophers fans would surely like to be on hand for another win, the coach denied that the home environment provided extra motivation for getting the first in Big Ten play.
The Gophers have plenty of that already.
“We could play in Spain, I wouldn’t care as long as we’re winning,” Pitino said. “I think it’s just important to find a way to get a win …getting it at home would be great because it’s the next game more than anything.”
Pitino also said on Friday that his players were “sensing” that they’re playing better and McBrayer said he believed he and his teammates were starting to figure out that their identity needs to be on defense. Now, the coach says his biggest worry is making sure the team’s newfound boost doesn’t transform into over-confidence against a team that lost by 34 at Indiana on Tuesday.
“We’ve got a new opportunity and challenge right in front of us,” he said. “A concern of mine is you’ve played pretty well the last two games now are you going to assume you’re going to win tomorrow? …I think we need to stick to getting better defensively, getting better rebounding the ball and we’ll play well.”