The Gophers saw the scores. Seemingly every week from the start of November, another Power Five conference team fell victim to some scrappy school from the middle of nowhere.
“I knocked on wood every day,” coach Richard Pitino recalled on Saturday night. “I was like, ‘All right, we haven’t lost one of these games ...
“ ‘Yet.’ ”
Less than an hour earlier, Minnesota had joined that growing ill-famed crowd, surrendering to visiting South Dakota in double overtime. Social media erupted with fans wallowing in what was being discussed as the Gophers’ worst loss in nearly a decade.
#Completejoke ... How is a loss like this even possible? ... On it went.
But shock value of the moment aside, such occurrences appear to be more common, something the Gophers are keeping in mind for their next nonconference matchup, vs. South Dakota State on Tuesday night.
Already this season, there have been seven upsets in “guarantee games” — when big schools pay smaller schools to play in their buildings — among Big Ten teams, with none other than NCAA runner-up Wisconsin starting the carnage in a 69-67 loss to Western Illinois in its season opener.
Last season, such losses were just as rampant. Every Big Ten team except for Maryland and Iowa has suffered a guarantee-game loss this season or last.
“It’s definitely way more prevalent now,” Pitino said on Monday. “I mean, every year, you keep seeing it. It’s just everywhere. I think a lot of it probably has to do with youth [on big-school teams] and age, experience for other guys. I also think a lot of other programs are catching up with resources and so on.”
Overall, though, the losses haven’t proved to be a predictor of much. Penn State wound up 13th in the Big Ten standings by last spring, but the Nittany Lions managed to win all their guarantee games. Michigan State, meanwhile, floundered vs. Texas Southern on a frosty-shooting December night a year ago at the Breslin Center. But come March, the Spartans were dancing to the Final Four. Minnesota hadn’t lost a guarantee game since 2006, when the Gophers fell to Arkansas-Little Rock. But in the eight seasons that have followed, they haven’t finished higher than sixth in the conference.
Often, the troublemaking small schools are in areas near their high-major target. The Badgers’ loss last month came vs. a team that practices just four hours away. Last year, Central Michigan upset Northwestern, and Eastern Michigan bused exactly 10.6 miles from Ypsilanti to top Michigan in Ann Arbor. Minnesota’s loss was similarly local — South Dakota boasted four players from the state, including forward Eric Robertson, who dropped 16 on the Gophers.
“There aren’t many high-major basketball teams in this area,” senior Joey King said. “They come in with a lot of emotions. And with so many Minnesotans on these teams, it’s their Super Bowl, there’s a lot of excitement build up for it, and we get everyone’s best shot.”
Pitino had warned his players that they aren’t immune to one of these defeats, and he’s preaching the message even stronger now. He’s seen enough scores, including Minnesota’s own, to be wary.
“They don’t surprise me,” Pitino said of the upsets. “South Dakota State could beat us. We knew South Dakota could beat us, just like we could beat any given team on any given night as well.”