Richard Pitino would like to thank the Big Ten for finally giving his Gophers men’s basketball team a bye week after the most challenging first few months to start a season in his coaching career.

February is a critical month for Pitino’s team, but it also marks a point in the season when Minnesota’s players could use a little break between games.

That’s exactly what the Gophers (12-11, 6-7 Big Ten) get this week with their next game not until Sunday afternoon against Iowa at home.

“We played a lot of games in the month of January,” Pitino said recently. “Every team gets two bye weeks. We haven’t had any yet. You would love one in January, February and March, but it just doesn’t work out that way with the schedule. That was a long month, with a lot of good moments and a lot of tough moments.”

Minnesota was the only Big Ten team to play nine conference games in January. Ten teams played eight, while Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan played only seven.

“It’s a grind when you’re playing that many games, especially with our strength of schedule in the conference,” Pitino said. “It’s a good little break. But obviously [we’re] excited about some really good opportunities in front of us.”

In the first full month of the Big Ten season, the Gophers went 4-5. They swept Ohio State and beat Penn State and Michigan at home for their best wins to date.

There were also some tough road losses. An 83-78 double-overtime loss at Purdue on Jan. 2 still haunts the Gophers because a victory would have greatly boosted their NCAA tournament résumé.

Missing in action in that Purdue loss — and in a Jan. 30 loss at Illinois — was junior guard Payton Willis, who was sidelined for four games with ankle and shoulder injuries.

Willis, who helped the Gophers beat Wisconsin with 21 points last week at home, is using this bye week to continue to get healthy and comfortable. His return aids point guard Marcus Carr in the backcourt.

“We’re just going to take this break time to get prepared,” Carr said last weekend. “We’ve got a good stretch ahead of us.”

Pitino called in to his Tuesday radio show from the road because he was using the beginning of the week to recruit. He was also thinking about how Carr (38.5) and star center Daniel Oturu (36.5) are leading the Big Ten in minutes per game in league play.

The Gophers, who have three home games in February, hope to recharge themselves this week to finish the last seven regular-season games strong. It will help to give Carr and Oturu a chance to rest, too.

“He’s probably playing too many minutes,” Pitino said about Oturu. “That’s something we have to evaluate. I think he and Marcus are playing too much. He’s fought through fatigue, and sometime we have to … get him a breather.”