COLLEGE PARK, M.D. – The Gophers woke up Thursday as one of the hottest teams in men's college basketball, with six consecutive victories after their 89-75 victory at No. 24 Maryland on Wednesday.
That winning streak is tied with Big Ten leader Purdue for the second-longest active win streak among major conference teams. Duke and Villanova both had seven-game win streaks end Wednesday night.
Florida has won nine in a row, but it plays Kentucky on Saturday. The Wildcats have five consecutive wins. Purdue plays at Michigan on Saturday. The Wolverines are dangerous at home having blown out Indiana and Michigan State.
So there's a chance Minnesota (21-7, 9-6 Big Ten) could be the hottest big-conference team — if it handles Penn State (14-14, 6-9) on Saturday at home.
This is the longest conference win streak for the Gophers since the 1996-97 Final Four season, when they won 12 in a row. Because that season has since been vacated, you have to go back to 1977-78, a team led by Kevin McHale and Mychal Thompson. That squad won seven in a row to finish second in the Big Ten.
Richard Pitino had so many hot hands in Wednesday's second half, he had to sit guys who couldn't miss. He left in Dupree McBrayer, who finished with 14 of his team-high 18 points in the second half. "I just went with the hot hand," Pitino said. "But Akeem [Springs] was terrific as well."
Springs scored 10 of his 16 points in the first half, and he played only 18 minutes.
"Akeem came out on fire," McBrayer said. "I thought he was going to get 30. Akeem told me ... 'Come in and be confident.' That's what I did. He came back in and got [hot], and then I got on fire. That's kind of like taking turns."
Minnesota's four guards combined for 64 points. Nate Mason scored 10 of his 17 points in the first half, while Amir Coffey scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half.
Coach: We're in
Big Ten Network cameras were in the locker room as Pitino addressed his team after the victory — one that all but clinched the Gophers' spot in the NCAA tournament. In Pitino's mind, it's no longer a question.
"No more talk about [making the] NCAA tournament," he said. "We're talking about seeds in the NCAA tournament."