The most embarrassing moment this season for Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino and his players came Wednesday, down 37 points at Michigan, their largest deficit in any game in four years.
"Honestly, we just weren't ready to play," sophomore Isaiah Ihnen said after the 82-57 loss in Ann Arbor. "We don't have any fans. No one really has an advantage, home court or on the road. The team that just plays with the most energy all the time ends up winning."
Whether lacking toughness or energy is the problem or not, the No. 16 Gophers travel to play Sunday at No. 5 Iowa, still missing what nine of 14 Big Ten teams already have on their résumé: a conference road win.
Road wins are always hard to come by in the Big Ten, even during the pandemic with thousands of empty seats in every arena. The Big Ten's home winning percentage is 84% (84-16), similar to what it was at this time last season (86.5%) and second among power conferences this season behind the SEC (85%).
The Big Ten's top title contenders — Michigan, Illinois and Iowa (10-2, 4-1) — have all won twice away from home. Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan State and Northwestern all won a league road game. Even Purdue and Maryland have a road win.
The Gophers (10-3, 3-3) are not only winless on the road, they're also the only Big Ten team that has two league road losses by over 20 points.
"I've got to do a better job of having them prepared," Pitino said. "Instead of getting in there and attacking their physicality, we were playing on our heels."
All three Gophers losses came in blowout fashion on the road — at Illinois (by 27 points), Wisconsin (12) and Michigan (25).
But Pitino's road woes aren't isolated to this season.
The Gophers are 22-5 at home the past two seasons, including 10-0 this season. But they're only 2-13 on the road in that span. They'll need to figure out how to play better away from Williams Arena because four of their next six games are on the road.
"I don't buy into the balls thing or the rims thing," Pitino said of excuses his players have used. "The rims have nothing to do with defense. The rims have nothing to do with your energy, your enthusiasm."
Players are still getting used to playing college basketball in front of few or no fans because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"It's almost a bit more difficult playing on the road without any fans," Gophers standout guard Marcus Carr said. "When fans are there, you kind of like the atmosphere and it's stuff you look to as a player. But it's something we have to adjust to and win some games on the road."
It's not hard to fathom why players feel more comfortable at home, especially when their lives are complex because of isolation from family, daily testing and protocols.
Carr ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring (21.5 points per game) and first in assists (5.6), but he's averaging 13 points on 26% shooting on the road.
At home, the Gophers have averaged 85.5 points on 45% shooting from the field, with 17.5 assists and 29.7 free throws attempted per game. But on the road that drops to 60.3 points on 30% shooting, with just 9.3 assists and 17.3 free throws attempted.
"You're always most comfortable at home," Carr said. "You practice here the most. You play here the most. The baskets are going to look bigger to us."
Minnesota's lack of ball movement and Carr's propensity to overdribble and force the issue against double teams contributed to poor offensive execution in losses at Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan.
In the latest road debacle, the Gophers had a season-low six assists and shot only six free throws. The Wolverines shot 64% from inside the arc and scored 46 points in the paint.
"We didn't match their physicality," junior captain Gabe Kalscheur said. "We just weren't tough enough."
The 37-point second-half deficit against the Wolverines was the largest for the Gophers in any game since they trailed by 38 against Illinois in the 2016 Big Ten tournament. That was the same season Pitino finished a program-worst 8-23.
The Gophers are clearly not as bad as that this season. They've just played that poorly at times against good teams on the road. They trailed by 36 at Illinois in the Big Ten opener, and they were down 26 in the 71-59 loss at Wisconsin.
Those lopsided losses don't reflect the potential Minnesota has shown at home, beating St. Louis, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State — all NCAA tournament-caliber teams.
But other Big Ten teams are finding ways to win games on the road in a unique season. And the Gophers are on the outside looking into that club.