Richard Pitino said he scheduled tougher home games for the fans, but it really became an early test to see how much better his Gophers basketball team would be in his fourth season.
So far, it has been up to the challenge.
For the first time since 2011, Minnesota has two home victories against major conference opponents before Big Ten play after an 85-71 victory against Arkansas on Tuesday in front of 8,997 at Williams Arena.
The past two foes, Arkansas and St. John’s, aren’t projected to be NCAA tournament teams, but they could be competitive in the Southeastern Conference and Big East, respectively.
With a 5-0 start, the Gophers are making a statement they could be one of the most improved teams in the Big Ten. They need just three more wins to match last season’s total.
“I think they feel good about themselves,” Pitino said. “They should be confident. They’ve worked hard. They’ve stayed humble throughout a tough offseason.”
Coming off a career-high 30-point game Friday against St. John’s, freshman Amir Coffey led six players in double figures, scoring all of his 19 points in the second half on 7-for-9 shooting.
Akeem Springs had 11 first-half points, including three three-pointers.
Reggie Lynch got the best of his matchup with SEC preseason player of the year Moses Kingsley. Lynch outscored Kingsley 10-4 in the first half, and also finished with seven rebounds and three blocks before being limited to four minutes in the second half because of an ankle injury.
“He’s a difference-maker for us,” Pitino said of Lynch. “It’s too bad he got hurt, because I thought he was playing a really good game. I don’t think it’s anything serious.”
The Razorbacks (3-1), who shot 28 percent and committed 13 turnovers in the first half, took a 17-16 lead after a jumper from Kingsley with 7:40 left. But dunks from Lynch and Eric Curry sparked a 9-0 run.
Springs’ third three-pointer capped a 25-4 run for the Gophers, who led by 18 points at halftime. It was the third time in four games where a big run helped Minnesota overcome a first-half deficit.
“I think with our team, when we’re getting it done on defense we’re a lot more confident on offense,” Springs said. “We can credit the run to our defense. Once we get stops, it makes it easier for everybody.”
Curry, who played at Southwest Christian Academy in Little Rock, Ark., last season, tied a career-high with 12 points with his mom in attendance. He was 8-for-8 on free throws.
Nate Mason finished with 13 points and seven assists for the Gophers, who shot 51.8 percent from the field and forced 21 turnovers.
After playing Southern Illinois on Friday at home, Minnesota travels to No. 25 Florida State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Monday. Then it plays Vanderbilt on Dec. 3 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Pitino made good on his promise to bring a major conference opponent to the Barn by landing a home-and-home series with Arkansas. St. John’s was added as part of the Gavitt Tipoff games.
The home schedule is more appealing. But the Gophers have been more exciting to watch, too. They’re more athletic. They have more talent. They can really score.
Hitting the 80-point mark for the fifth consecutive game to open the season hadn’t been done at the U since 1992-93.
“Totally different team,” Pitino said. “I’ll say it a billion times. It’s like the Wolves before they had [Karl-Anthony Towns]. I’m not saying we’ve got KAT. But it’s a different team.”