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Schedule gets tougher for winless Gophers

Just when it looked like Minnesota might find a way to turn the corner, the Gophers endured a big setback -- to the tune of 82-58 -- at Northwestern on Thursday, igniting new questions about just how bruised and battered this squad is.

But perhaps the biggest concern for Minnesota about last week's laid egg should be the imminent road ahead.

There are still three games between now and that shining beacon of Rutgers at home -- the first Gophers conference victory predicted by analyst Ken Pomeroy. Although Minnesota has dealt with problems that run the gamut, the Gophers should still be plenty more talented than the woeful Scarlet Knights, as evidenced by their KenPom ranking (282) compared with that of Minnesota (199).

In the meantime, though, the Gophers -- in the midst of playing four ranked opponents in six games -- must navigate through perhaps the toughest stretch yet.

First, Minnesota gets Michigan at home on Wednesday. The Wolverines have received at least one vote in each of the last three polls despite star guard Caris LeVert sitting out since December 30. Coach John Beilein keeps saying LeVert is close to returning, but there are no hints about whether he'll be back against Minnesota. Michigan has struggled at times lately, particularly in a back-to-back losses to Indiana and Michigan State at home, but with LeVert in tow, the Wolverines might be a top-25 caliber team.

This weekend, the Gophers have a Valentine's date at Iowa, the Big Ten leader and fourth-ranked team nationally in this week's Associated Press poll. If that's not enough of a fear factor, Minnesota will return home for a matchup against No. 2 Maryland. Minnesota is fortunate enough to face each of the two league leaders just once this season, but the Gophers get both in the span of five days and at a time when each squad is possibly playing their best basketball of the year.

In other words, it's not a great time to be licking your wounds and trying to collect your confidence after arguably the worst spill of the season. But such is the Gophers' task in the week and a half ahead. 

Rayno: Gophers have been owned by Northwestern this season

Read Blake Schuster's special to the Star Tribune on the Gophers' 82-58 loss at Northwestern, here.

Minnesota coach Richard Pitino and Co. and the down-and-out Gophers dropped their 12th straight game on Thursday in dramatic fashion, sustaining an uglier-than-most 82-58 loss at Northwestern.

But what makes the defeat most mind-boggling is the the fact that we've seen it once already this season.

Less than a month ago, the Gophers fell 77-52 at home against the Wildcats. They looked incapable then of stopping the three or mustering much offense of their own.

But one day after Pitino declared that he did a “horrible job” with the game plan for Northwestern on that bewildering January afternoon, the Gophers looked even less prepared this time, in Evanston.

It was tough to tell which was more repugnant – Minnesota’s spastic, disjointed offense or its disconnected, often absent defense. The Gophers managed just 33.3 percent of their shots, worse than the 39.1 percent they managed against Northwestern at home, and made just four of 18 three-pointers, one short of their for 5-for-18 perforamance the first time around.

On the other end, the Wildcats, who came in with the league’s worst field goal percentage in Big Ten play (39.8 percent), had their way in the paint and on the perimeter. Northwestern drilled 12 three-pointers, one more than it managed in Take 1, and converted 53.7 percent of their shots, which would be a Big Ten best if not for the blistering 56 percent the Wildcats sank from the field in Minneapolis. 

It was enough to make us wonder if the postgame handshake was, uh, a little tighter than usual.

Pitino has bonded with Northwestern coach Chris Collins since joining the Big Ten, and it’s understandable. Not only is Collins a) in a similar position as a third-year coach having taken over a historically struggling program and b) son of a famous coach, but – at least from the media’s perspective – Collins is bright and very likable.

But now, Collins’ Wildcats have gone 4-1 against Minnesota since Pitino took the helm and have totally and completely abused the Gophers in the last two, sweeping them for the first time since 2006 by a stunning total of 49 points.

Beyond the stats, the second loss -- although by one point fewer -- felt worse because the lightning had struck once already and the Gophers were still doing laps in the swimming pool.

Right now, Northwestern owns the Gophers in a way that no other Big Ten team has. It shouldn’t be that way, because the Wildcats, on a five-game losing streak before catching woeful Minnesota on Thursday, aren’t 49 points better than the Gophers. But in two games this year, Northwestern has played with great energy and enthusiasm while Minnesota appeared eager to get off the court.

For the last five games, the Gophers looked much improved. Each of those losses came by seven points or fewer. Minnesota had chances, and it was easy to believe its first win was just around the corner. Thursday, that sentiment couldn’t have seemed farther from the truth. As Pitino said after the game, the team “took a step back” against a team for whom the Gophers and the coaches have had absoltutely no answer.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

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  • Dallas at Wild

    7 pm on NBCSN, 100.3-FM

  • Toronto at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Michigan at Gophers men's basketball

    8 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Washington at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Nebraska at Gophers women's basketball

    7 pm on 1500-AM

  • Gophers men's hockey at Ohio State

    5:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Minnesota Duluth

    7:07 pm

  • Boston at Wild

    1 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Minnesota Duluth

    4:07 pm

  • Gophers men's hockey at Ohio State

    6 pm on 1500-AM

  • Gophers men's basketball at Iowa

    6:30 pm on BTN, 1500-AM

  • Iowa at Gophers women's basketball

    7 pm on BTN, 88.5-FM

  • Wild at Vancouver

    9 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

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