Richard Pitino was asked after the Gophers won at Wisconsin last month if that was the biggest victory of his coaching career.
Fifty days later, he hopes to be asked the same question again Thursday night.
Beating the Badgers — the Gophers’ first victory in Madison in 10 years — is still Minnesota’s best win this season. But the biggest win of Pitino’s career, one that could end up getting his team into the NCAA tournament, is available for the taking Thursday against No. 7 Michigan at Williams Arena.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Pitino said. “We’ve only got two home games left, so hopefully it’s a sellout. Hopefully, it’s a crazy environment, because we need that. It’s one of the biggest games we’ve played in a long time.”
In his six seasons at Minnesota, Pitino is 2-10 vs. top-10 teams. The highest-ranked opponent the Gophers have topped in Pitino’s tenure is No. 6 Maryland, in a 68-63 victory on Feb. 18, 2016. That was also the last court-storming at the Barn. The U’s first Big Ten victory during that 8-23 season shocked college hoops.
Gophers senior captains Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer are the only players left from that big upset.
“Since me and Dupree have been there against a top-10 team before, we just have to keep in our guys’ ears about staying poised and calm,” Murphy said. “The building’s going to be packed. We’ve got to bring our energy, bring our focus.”
A victory Thursday would likely cause fans to storm the court again — this time on a new, much shinier raised floor. But the significance of beating Michigan (23-3, 12-3 Big Ten) also could carry over beyond one magical moment.
The Wolverines, who trail Michigan State by a half-game for first place in the Big Ten, are ranked No. 8 in the NET ranking, the RPI’s replacement as a tool for the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Minnesota’s top résumé wins so far are against Pac-12 leader Washington, Wisconsin and Iowa. The best win was that road victory against the Badgers, who are No. 14 in NET. The Gophers (17-9, 7-8) are 50th in NET and 3-7 overall in “Quadrant 1” games, the most important games in determining an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
Since beating Wisconsin, Minnesota is 1-6 in Quadrant 1 games, including four consecutive losses. The last top-10 opponent, No. 9 Michigan State, crushed the Gophers 79-55 in East Lansing on Feb. 9.
The Gophers’ most recent Quad 1 game ended in heartache, a 62-61 loss last week at Nebraska. Pitino urged his players to play angry in their next game, and the result was arguably their best performance of the season: an 84-63 victory Saturday against Indiana.
The Gophers hit 12 three-pointers and held the Hoosiers to 38 percent shooting. Pitino said they’re a confident team “that can play with anybody” right now, but they showed glimpses of that in the last meeting with Michigan.
On Jan. 22, the Gophers led for the first 22 minutes of the game, including by seven points in the second half. They responded to a 23-3 Michigan run and overcame a 13-point deficit to tie the score with 30.9 seconds left on a three-pointer from Gabe Kalscheur. Charles Matthews nailed a buzzer-beater for the then-No. 5 Wolverines to escape with a 59-57 victory in Ann Arbor.
That loss ranks at the top of a list of missed opportunities this season, a just-miss that would have been the program’s first road victory against a top-five team since 1994.
While Indiana was a confidence-building, bounce-back win, Michigan will be a different caliber of opponent.
The stakes are higher. The result could decide the team’s postseason fate. It doesn’t get any bigger than Thursday night for the Gophers in what is arguably the biggest game of the Pitino era.
“To play them, you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game,” McBrayer said. “Everybody has got to be together — and I hope the crowd is great.”