Gophers coach Marlene Stollings has been talking a lot this week about hitting the reset button. The Gophers have been extremely eager to get back on the floor after two road losses that they felt didn't reflect their team's true nature, and they tip off their Big Ten tournament opener in about one hour against Purdue at the Sears Centre in suburban Chicago.
It's a bit of a dangerous matchup for the sixth-seeded Gophers, despite Purdue's collapse during the second half of the season. The Boilermakers started the season 10-5 and beat the Gophers 90-88 in overtime on Jan. 22 at Williams Arena. They did not win again until finishing off a rally against Wisconsin on Wednesday night with a game-winning layup by April Wilson with three seconds left. That's 42 days between victories as Purdue finished last in the Big Ten for the first time in 31 years.
Purdue is the second-lowest scoring team in the Big Ten and is at the bottom of the league standings in field-goal percentage (39 percent). It also is near the bottom of the league in defensive rebounds (11th, 26 per game). The Gophers are statistically superior, but the Boilermakers will have confidence from having beaten them earlier this season, and from their victory over Wisconsin.
Stollings said the Gophers learned plenty from those losses at Nebraska and Iowa, when they lost their poise in loud arenas. They have shown the ability to shake off bad games--and regroup after larger losses, such as Rachel Banham's injury.
"They're very resilient,'' Stollings said. "They understand they didn’t play their best basketball (at Nebraska and Iowa). They know they're capable of much better. I think they have a renewed spirit. We'll hit the reset button going into the tournament. It's 0-0, and it's time for the Gophers to shine again.''
The folks who predict the NCAA tournament field have the Gophers firmly in the fold, including ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme, who has them pegged as a No. 8 seed in the Albany bracket. But Stollings said she will rest easier with another victory or two. The Gophers have lost their opening game in the Big Ten tournament in five of the past seven years; last year, as a No. 6 seed, they beat Wisconsin before falling to No. 3 seed Nebraska.
"I don’t know that we are secure in our belief (of making the NCAA tournament) yet,'' she said. "I know people are saying many things about it. I would love to go to the Big Ten tournament and see how big of a run we can make. Our goal would be to win the championship, obviously, but we're staying very focused game by game.
"We want to make sure we're in (the NCAA tournament). We don’t want to sit on March 16 and wonder, 'Are we in, or not? Are we on the bubble?' We want to know we're in, and we're just waiting on seeding.''
The venue for this year's event is in Hoffman Estates, Ill., about 50 miles from downtown Chicago. It's the second consecutive year the tournament has been held here; it returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis next spring. And it's been pretty empty. The crowd for Wednesday night's opening games--featuring Wisconsin, Purdue, Penn State and Indiana--was announced as 3,471 in an 11,000-seat arena. The early session Thursday, with Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Rutgers, was announced as 4,941.
There were quite a few Gophers fans at the team hotel this afternoon, including a busload from New Richland, Minn., Carlie Wagner's hometown.
The Big Ten has been proudly noting that attendance during the regular season set a league record, with an announced total of 869,312 fans. Of course, this year's total includes two more teams. Maryland's average home attendance of 5,889 was fourth in the conference, and Rutgers' home average of 2,645 was 11th. The Gophers' home average of 4,460 was eighth.