When Minnesota heads into Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the opening round of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament Thursday in Indianapolis, no one needs to tell Richard Pitino that Penn State will be hungry.
A year ago, the Gophers coach was on the flip side.
At Florida International, his Golden Panthers were bested twice by Middle Tennessee State during the regular season before turning the tables in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
“We were not losing,” Pitino said this week, the intensity rising in his voice. “We were not losing that game. We were not losing.”
Now, it is Pitino’s crew that will have to stave off a Penn State team certain to have that same mentality after losing to the Gophers twice during the regular season. At stake for the Gophers is their hope of gaining an NCAA tournament berth.
This much appears certain: Minnesota will need at least one more victory to have any chance of being invited to the NCAA tournament. After that, opinions widely vary.
CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm told the Star Tribune he doesn’t believe the Gophers are safely in the field unless they win at least two or three games in the conference tournament.
Pitino thinks otherwise, saying: “Jerry Palm is out of his mind if he thinks we have to win three games to go to the NCAA tournament.”
Pitino said he believes a victory over Penn State will be enough to make the Gophers serious candidates for an at-large berth, based on “20 wins, and you have a top-five strength of schedule [as of Tuesday]. … But obviously a couple things have to pan out the right way.”
The Gophers strive to take it a step further and just claim the championship, which carries with it an automatic tournament berth.
Inside the gym at the Bierman Field Athletic building, seven white posters are affixed to a wall, each containing one character:
“4 IN A ROW”
Minnesota has never won a Big Ten tournament. Doing so now would require a focus that allows the Gophers to block out the constant chatter that surrounds their NCAA prospects.
“It’s tough, especially with all the media and whatnot,” center Mo Walker said. “One day we’re on the good side of the bubble, the other day we’re on the bad side of the bubble. You just try to stay away from it, try to focus on getting better.”
They also need to understand that Penn State (15-16, 6-12 Big Ten) will enter the game determined not to lose three times in one season to the Gophers (19-12, 8-10). Penn State has beaten Ohio State twice this season and has victories over Nebraska and Indiana, giving the Nittany Lions hope that they, too, can win four consecutive tournament games and move on.
“We’ve got to come out with a sense of urgency,” Penn State associate head coach Keith Urgo said. “We know we’re capable of playing with anybody in the country, let alone this league, if we come out and play our game and play as hard as we possibly can.”
The Gophers barely defeated Penn State 68-65 at State College, then gained a blowout 81-63 victory Sunday in the regular-season finale at Williams Arena. For Pitino, that’s reminiscent of his FIU team a year ago, which lost to Middle Tennessee State once in a rout, then in a heartbreaker at the buzzer. FIU turned the tables with a 61-57 victory in the Sun Belt Conference semifinals, then lost 65-63 to Western Kentucky in the title game. Middle Tennessee State ultimately received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, something that almost certainly won’t happen for the Gophers with a loss to Penn State.
The Gophers’ résumé certainly suggests that a loss in Thursday’s opening round is possible.
Minnesota has struggled with letdowns all season. Each time the Gophers have notched a notable victory — Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa — they have failed to follow up. In fact, they haven’t put together consecutive Big Ten victories since early January, when they won against Purdue and at Penn State.
What’s more, the Gophers have struggled mightily away from home this year. Their only conference road victories came at Penn State and Northwestern.
Pitino said he didn’t hold anything back Sunday, giving the Nittany Lions the opportunity to adjust.
“I don’t think there are too many secrets anymore,” he said. “We kind of do what we do now.”
That identity has appeared to grow stronger in the past three games. Since the 95-89 victory over Iowa on Feb. 25, the Gophers have shot 54.2 percent from the field, winning two of three. Even so, there aren’t many who are expecting Minnesota to make a deep run.
Pitino said he planned on motivating the players by reminding them that when Monday’s postseason awards were released by the Big Ten, “there was no first, second, third, defensive, all-rookie, sixth man of the year” honors given to a player in maroon and gold.
Andre Hollins said he hopes the team has a chance to enlighten those voters.
“I just love it,” he said of the start of postseason. “The lights are on. It’s win or go home. And I don’t want to go home. I want to win, I want to keep winning.
“It’s another opportunity to show the NCAA committee, show ourselves, show our fans, show Minnesota that we can go out and compete with anybody and win.”