When Richard Pitino was asked whether the Gophers needed this nine-day break after Monday’s 68-67 win against Drake, he didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“No doubt,” Pitino said. “This has been the toughest 12 games. … Our confidence obviously isn’t great right now.”
The Gophers (9-3) picked up an impressive November win at Providence in their second game. They also beat Alabama in a bizarre game that ended 5-on-3 after Thanksgiving in Brooklyn, N.Y. But before the Drake victory came two consecutive losses on the road last week — at Nebraska and Arkansas — and they were demoralizing.
Minnesota’s 10-point loss to the Cornhuskers was the second of two early December conference games to start the Big Ten schedule.
That was something the Big Ten forced on teams after moving up the conference tournament to late February so it could be played in Madison Square Garden. Instead of being able to work out early December kinks at home against nonconference opponents, the Gophers went to Lincoln, where they haven’t won since 2012.
The Gophers then had to go back on the road to play in front of 17,000 fans at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., last weekend. The last time the Gophers played back-to-back true road games in December: 1999.
Junior forward Jordan Murphy, who is leading the Big Ten in scoring (20.2) and rebounding (13.0), said the Gophers entered Monday’s game against Drake feeling the “weight of the world” on their shoulders. They were booed by the home crowd for trailing at halftime.
“It was because we lost a couple games in a row,” Murphy said of the team’s poor effort in the first half. “The pressure of winning [Monday] was in the back of our minds.”
Murphy put the Gophers on his broad shoulders with a 24-point, 18-rebound, four-block performance to end the slide.
Minnesota hopes to get some momentum going again during a five-game homestand — the first four against nonconference teams — that starts next Thursday against Oral Roberts.
“Better learning from a win than a loss,” Murphy said. “It’s definitely a learning experience for us and keeps our young guys motivated. We have some great talent on the bench. They just need to get that confidence back that they had.”
Being tested so much away from home the last couple months meant Pitino relied less on his bench so far than any of his previous four seasons.
Only Northwestern ranks lower than Minnesota in the percentage of bench minutes — 27.2 to 28 — among Big Ten teams this season.
The starters were worn out physically by extended minutes and mentally from tough road losses.
“Providence seems like it was three months ago,” Pitino said about the first road win Nov. 13. “So we need a nice reset.
“Hopefully, this break will do that.”