Going through the toughest Big Ten stretch in Gophers men's basketball history, Richard Pitino wasn't spending a lot of time looking back to enjoy the big victories.
Not the thrilling overtime home win vs. then-No. 4 Iowa.
Not his first win vs. Michigan State and Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo at Williams Arena.
Not the third straight victory over Ohio State for the first time in 30 years.
The No. 23 Gophers (10-4, 3-4 Big Ten) play their eighth straight ranked Big Ten opponent Saturday at home vs. No. 7 Michigan (11-0, 6-0). No Division I basketball program had done that vs. ranked teams in the Associated Press poll since St. John's in 2011.
"Probably in the eight years that I've been here we've probably had more great moments in the first [half of the season] than we've ever had," Pitino said.
That includes two NCAA tournament seasons and the NIT championship in his first year.
Pitino gave his players three days off to recharge after last Sunday's 86-71 loss at Iowa. They returned to practice Thursday with more energy and spirit, Pitino said.
"Our guys might've been worn out mentally and physically," Pitino said. "Not just Gophers basketball. But what we're going through is not even a little bit normal. As a coach, you have to be aware of it's good to give them a time off. It's a grind."
Amid the daily COVID-19 testing, the distance learning and isolation from family and friends, the Gophers were underdogs in nine straight games, including on Dec. 20 vs. a St. Louis squad that's currently in the Top 25.
Some analysts, such as Ken Pomeroy, projected the Gophers would go 1-8 during that murderous row, but they're currently 4-4 with a rematch against the Wolverines at the Barn left. They lost 82-57 in Ann Arbor on Jan. 6.
It's a pleasant surprise even for Pitino that his team could come away with a winning record in that challenging stretch, which included playing twice against Iowa and Michigan, the Big Ten's top two teams. And the Gophers faced the other top league title contenders Illinois and Wisconsin on the road.
"I've never seen anything like it," Pitino said. "I was tossing and turning [Thursday night] looking at my phone and looking at how many games we've played that have been really challenging. And we've responded very well."
Protecting home court is a critical step toward contending in the Big Ten. Minnesota has done that at 10-0 this season, which includes quality wins vs. Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.
A three-game win streak, which included giving St. Louis its first loss, led to the Gophers earning their first national ranking since 2017-18. They rose to 16th in the country before a humbling 82-57 road loss to the Wolverines, who also led by 40 points in Tuesday's win over Wisconsin.
"Michigan has got as much talent as any team in the country," Pitino said. "I think Juwan [Howard] has done a really good job getting them bought in."
The Gophers dropped to 0-4 on the road after back-to-back losses to Michigan and Iowa. They have a chance to remedy that with no teams in the last six road games currently ranked, starting Wednesday at Nebraska, winless in the league.
Junior point guard Marcus Carr and 7-foot Drake transfer Liam Robbins, who won back-to-back player of the week honors earlier this month, give the Gophers one of the top inside-outside tandems in the Big Ten.
But the Gophers learned in their four losses they're not a team that can just rely on Carr or Robbins to carry the load. They're a work in progress playing together and executing consistently on both ends of the floor.
Carr, a Big Ten player of the year candidate to begin the season, averaged 25 points, shot 49% from the field and made 6.6 free throws per game during Minnesota's 7-0 nonconference slate. He's averaging 16.7 points, shooting 34% and making four free throws per game in seven Big Ten games.
"I think I've been pretty up and down during that stretch," Carr said. "Me and the team haven't played our best, but we've had a lot of really good moments. We had some low moments as well. We're in conference play now. Scouting is better. We're playing tougher teams. Have to just find different ways to attack."
Figuring out how to play with more balance moving forward during a less daunting stretch could result in even more success.
"We played a lot of great teams," Robbins said. "I don't think defensively we've been that bad. A lot of it I think comes down to the first five minutes of games in the second half. We need to lock in defensively and really make sure we're running them off the line and getting them out of their comfort zone. That will lead us to winning more games."