As I scrambled to finish filing my first deadline story minutes after Minnesota completed its raucous upset of No. 6 Maryland at an ecstatic Williams Arena on Thursday night, I couldn't help but overhear all the renewed confidence.
"We're gonna win the Big Ten tournament!" yelled a young man as he stumbled around the rushed court, shooting video with his iPhone.
It was a sentiment that was funny for a couple reasons. First, I'm not sure I've ever heard someone declare that goal in mid-February as a genuine expression of hope. Secondly, the loudest fan manifesto I'd heard previously was more like "They're gonna go winless! Set fire to campus!"
There's a pretty big leap between the two. The latter is a pitchfork cry; the former sees change around the corner.
Realistically, it's hard to take too much one way or the other from the victory. Impressive as it seems, it was just a single win against a team without one of its critical players (Diamond Stone) in the context of a very bad season (longest losing streak in program history). On the other hand, the fact that Minnesota gutted out a tight game against a more talented opponent can't be ignored either -- that shows improvement.
Regardless, one thing seems clear: the boost in confidence paired with the remaining slate SHOULD set the Gophers up to finish the season on a high note.
Minnesota, with less than two weeks to the finish line, has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Big Ten. Three of the Gophers last four opponents -- Rutgers twice and Illinois on the road -- sit in the conference's bottom three. The other game comes against Wisconsin at home. The Badgers were as hot as any team heading out of last weekend, but in the meantime they lost at Michigan State and barely skid past Illinois on Sunday. Minnesota also has the benefit of recent history against Wisconsin -- in two of the last three years, the Gophers have upset their border rival at home.
In short, it's not completely crazy to think Minnesota could win out. And if that happens, Guy With The IPhone, who knows what could happen in the Big Ten tournament?
The flip side, of course, is that the Gophers could follow up coach Richard Pitino's second top-10 win by falling on their faces as early as tomorrow in the first league game Minnesota has been favored in all year, at home against Rutgers (7:30, BTN). There's no new rule that says the Gophers can't lose three of their next four, either.
But after the first event that inspired optimism all year, perhaps its best to just enjoy the moment.