Mike Wierzbicki looked around at the empty seats at Williams Arena after the Gophers men's basketball team upset No. 7 Michigan last Saturday.
The victory felt bittersweet.
The Barnyard student section wasn't leading a court storming. The marching band wasn't playing while the team stood on the raised floor singing the Rouser before celebrating fans.
The Gophers joined heavyweights Gonzaga, Kansas and Iowa by picking up their fourth victory against a ranked opponent last weekend, but Gophers faithful couldn't be there to experience the memorable moment because of the pandemic.
"It's not the same," said Wierzbicki, the Gophers associate athletic director. "We miss the energy at the Barn. When you're playing well, there are a lot of smiles and you're having fun."
The No. 17 Gophers have made Williams Arena a tough place to play, going 11-0 there this season and joining Michigan as the only Big Ten teams still undefeated at home.
The Barn would've surely been rocking, maybe like the glory days. The Gophers instead are playing again at home Saturday vs. Maryland with no crowds to cheer on their success.
"After a made three, it's not like we can crank up the audio," Wierzbicki said. "The team is creating some of that energy. It's taken every team some time to figure that out. Credit to Coach [Richard Pitino] and credit to our [players]. You have to find a way to create some of that yourself because you don't have 14,000 people who can get on their feet."
Even simulated crowd noise and music couldn't create the atmosphere that existed on big game days for Minnesota when the team is playing well.
Last season, the Gophers were a disappointing 15-16. The average home attendance (10,665) was the lowest since 1970-71. They were the only Big Ten team without a Saturday home conference game, but they still had a Sunday announced sellout against rival Iowa.
Pitino thought recently how many times the Gophers would've filled the Barn to capacity at 14,625 fans if this were a normal year.
"I was looking that we have six Saturday [home] games," Pitino said. "I bet you all of them would've been sold out this year. We [hardly] had any last year at Williams Arena. But there are no fans. It's all neutral sites."
The Gophers were one of six Big Ten teams who had no fans attending any of their home games this season until 38 family members showed up last Saturday. Six Big Ten teams have now had at least limited fans during conference home games.
Iowa had the largest crowd in the Big Ten this year at 569 fans against the Gophers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 10. Illinois has allowed family to attend all of its home games since the Nov. 25 opener, averaging 160 fans through nine games.
The Barn won't have more than 150 fans at games the rest of this season. Players are allowed four family members each.
Wierzbicki, in charge of Gophers external affairs, said his marketing staff is still encouraging fans to purchase cutouts to place in the empty seats in the arena. There's a SKI-U-MAH banner in the lower bowl behind the scorer's table made up of the names of the season-ticket holders for men's and women's hoops.
The rising interest in Gophers basketball right now doesn't turn into much revenue for the athletics department. The hope is it could result in more season tickets sold next season.
"Our fans miss it," Wierzbicki said. "Now that we're almost a year into this [pandemic] I think there's an understanding of the environment we're in. We're not putting anybody into an [unsafe] situation. But that's where our external engagement comes in where we can try to make you still feel part of it."
The best home records the Gophers under Pitino were 20-3 in his first season in 2013-14, and 17-3 in 2016-17. The best season at home in the past 20 years was 15-2 under Tubby Smith in 2012-13, which included fans storming the court after an upset over No. 1-ranked Indiana. The last court-storming was a season ago after beating No. 3 Ohio State.
The Gophers beat two top-10 teams at home (No. 4 Iowa and No. 7 Michigan) for the first time since the program's Elite Eight season under Clem Haskins in 1989-90. The last time the U beat Michigan and Michigan State by double digits in the same season was under Bill Musselman in 1972-73.
Good and bad
Minnesota is 0-4 on the road this season, so protecting home court has been critical to staying in contention in the Big Ten.
Fewer than 40 fans, mostly family members, showed up with loosened COVID-19 restrictions to see the Gophers knock off the Wolverines from the undefeated ranks last weekend.
"It's nice to see familiar faces," said former DeLaSalle star and junior guard Gabe Kalscheur, who had family in attendance. "I know there are a lot of people also supporting us watching on TV."
Gophers players miss hearing fans erupt after big plays and big wins on the raised floor. But they've still made the Barn a place where they're unbeatable so far, feeling comfortable and confident to play their best basketball.
"It's just home court," said Gophers junior guard Marcus Carr, who hit a couple last-second shots this season to help his team win games at home. "We're kind of used to it. We don't have to travel. I think everybody is just most comfortable at home."