COLLEGE PARK, MD. – Heading into his postgame news conference Wednesday at Mackey Arena, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino ran into Purdue center A.J. Hammons, who was just leaving the players’ interview session, and the two shared a few words.
“Who’ve you got next?” Hammons asked the opposing coach.
“At Maryland,” Pitino answered.
“Boy,” Hammons said. “That’s a tough game.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Pitino returned flatly.
Regardless of whether its reputation is up or down, few road games are easy in the Big Ten.
The coaches know it. The players know it. And you certainly don’t have to tell the Gophers, who moments before Pitino and Hammons’ meeting had just dropped their first Big Ten road game of the season, bringing to mind their struggles in games away from Williams Arena from a season earlier.
Now, three days after blowing a 13-point lead against a Purdue team that had been playing as badly as any in the conference, the Gophers must try to snag their Big Ten first road victory at a much tougher assignment: No. 12 Maryland.
“That’s life on the road in the Big Ten,” Pitino said. “No time to pout and cry.”
Finding success in that life has been hard to come by so far for the second-year coach and his troops. Last year, the Gophers went 2-6 in Big Ten road games, and neither of the two victories were impressive, coming against bottom-feeders Penn State and Northwestern. After a 20-13 season that included an 8-10 mark in the Big Ten, the Gophers were denied entrance to the Big Dance by the NCAA tournament committee.
“Road wins against top-50 teams are really, really impressive to the committee,” NCAA tournament committee chairman Ron Wellman said last March. “So that was probably the factor that was the most prominent.”
This season, the Gophers have for stretches looked improved compared to last season’s team, which made the most of its NIT invitation by winning it, and players and coaches have unabashedly echoed that perception. But from now until March, the Gophers know they need to win more road games to make a more positive impression on the committee.
“That’s the next step,” Pitino said. “I would hope we are going to win a lot of games at home just because we have a really good home-court advantage, like most teams do in the Big Ten. If you want to make noise, you’ve got to go get some on the road.
“So we’ve got to break through. If we want to be a top-half-of-the-league team and an elite team at all those things, you’ve got to win on the road and in order to do that, you’ve got to be really, really tough, mentally and physically.”
For most of Wednesday’s game in West Lafayette, Ind., it looked like the Gophers would start with a clatter, and in a building they hadn’t won in since 2005. They controlled all but the last five minutes of the game — first building a 13-point lead, then responding to each of Purdue’s threats with big shots and runs of their own.
But they couldn’t stop the Boilermakers’ final surge. Andre Hollins’ three-pointer clanked; Mo Walker’s slip to the basket didn’t pan out; and DeAndre Mathieu’s foul — and Rapheal Davis’ ensuing two free throws — with 19 seconds left sealed a 72-68 loss.
A day earlier, Pitino had talked about being excited to see his players’ faces — to see how they dealt with the adversity of playing in tough, opposing venues with rowdy fans.
“I want to see how they feel right now in tough environments,” he said then. “Because you can’t run away from that. That’s coming. The next two and a half months are going to be a long grind, highs and lows. Are they going to want the game to be over, or are they going to relish it?”
Wednesday night, those faces were long and frustrated as the team boarded its charter flight back to the Twin Cities for a sobering New Year’s Eve night.
“We’re just ready for a new year,” Mathieu said a day earlier. “It’s a new team and hopefully we’ll have a different result this time.”
Said Walker: “I think we’re definitely tougher this year. I think we’ll be a better road team this year. I have the confidence in my teammates and myself that we will be a better road team.”
The Gophers didn’t show that Wednesday, but they have seven more chances to prove it.