The Gophers' third straight win Monday in blowing out Michigan State by 25 points opened the eyes of the college basketball world on the potential of Richard Pitino's team.

They once were a preseason pick to finish 11th in the Big Ten.

Now the No. 21 Gophers (9-1, 2-1 in the Big Ten) have earned national respect, a top-10 projected NCAA tournament seed and their first Associated Press Top 25 ranking since 2017-18.

Wins against St. Louis, Iowa, and Michigan State put Pitino's program back on the map.

It wasn't long ago, though, the Gophers did not appear on the NCAA tourney bubble or receive any votes for national rankings following a 6-0 start against a soft nonleague schedule.

Pitino found out more about his team in one humbling 27-point loss Dec. 15 at Illinois to open Big Ten play. The Gophers, who play at No. 6 Wisconsin on Thursday, are on a roll right now for a reason.

Here are four things that changed after the Illinois loss:

Defensive improvement

The Gophers are far from a sudden defensive juggernaut after holding Michigan State to 25.7% shooting from the field. But that performance can't be dismissed as an anomaly, not when it was the first time the Spartans were held below 30% shooting since a 2012 NCAA tourney loss to Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals.

It was also the lowest field goal percentage from an opponent in the Richard Pitino era. Minnesota put together an entire 40 minutes of an improved defensive effort shown in stretches in the previous two wins.

The Gophers held St. Louis to 0-for-10 three-point shooting in the second half of their Dec. 20 win. The Billikens entered the game ranked third in the nation in shooting from beyond the arc (44.6%). The Hawkeyes had the nation's No. 1 offense, but they had their lowest scoring half of the season (33 points on 32% shooting). Overall, the Gophers held their last three opponents to 36% shooting from the field and 25.7% from three.

Supporting Carr

If the average college basketball fan didn't know Marcus Carr's name before, they do now. The Gophers junior is clearly one of the elite scoring point guards in the game. Carr is in his own class as well. He's the only player in Division I averaging at least 21 points, six assists and shooting 48% from the field.

But Carr needed help for the Gophers to bounce back from the Illinois loss. In the St. Louis win, Carr had 32 points on 14-for-19 free throws, and five other players scored at least nine points, including starters Both Gach, Liam Robbins, and Gabe Kalscheur in double figures (14-for-14 combined from the foul line).

In the Iowa victory, Carr had his second straight 30-point performance, but Robbins and Brandon Johnson combined for 44 points, including Johnson's 8-for-9 shooting from three. Robbins' inside presence was again a game-changer vs. Michigan State with 18 points and nine rebounds, to go with Carr's team-high 19 points.

Team chemistry

Pitino called these Gophers the closest team he's ever had, which says something having coached the program to the NCAA tournament in 2017 and 2019. Those players had camaraderie as well, but it's much different this year. It's not just one weeklong bonding foreign trip.

These players are around each other constantly having to isolate from family and most friends due to precautions and daily COVID-19 testing protocols. They do everything together. Six newcomers basically became BFFs with the returnees, but their chemistry on the court took time to develop without as much practice time in the offseason.

The ball movement and assists numbers (16.3 to 18.7 per game) improved in the last three games. Not only do they like each other, but they know each other's games now.

"Our bond has grown every game," Johnson said. "I feel like I can see it on the court every time. It's 100 percent communication, effort, everything, and it's truly a great thing to see."


You can't measure physical toughness, but it typically does show up in rebounding margin. The Gophers were last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.4) entering Monday, which included losing the battle of the boards by minus-17.5 against Illinois and Iowa.

The Hawkeyes grabbing 27 offensive boards in their loss was Minnesota's wake-up call. Pitino focused on rebounding and blocking out with a purpose more than ever in practice.

It showed up against Michigan State with the Gophers finishing with their biggest rebounding edge of the season (52-36). The Spartans had outrebounded every opponent (even Duke) this season before meeting the tougher Gophers.