Being nationally ranked early in January means more to some college basketball teams than others.
For the Gophers, it means they’ve come a long way to get back into the top 25 for the first time in four years.
Minnesota coach Richard Pitino's team is ranked both No. 24 in the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches men's basketball polls Monday, after starting the season 15-2 and 3-1 in the Big Ten after three straight wins, including at Purdue and Northwestern.
Pitino said following Sunday's 78-68 win against Ohio State at home that rankings mean "absolutely 1,000 percent nothing to me," because the team has bigger goals in mind than making the top 25 this season.
“Rankings are for the fans,” he said. “That’s not our goal.”
The Gophers have their eyes on the NCAA tournament. Pitino said what he cares about are Rating Percentage Index and Strength of Schedule rankings. Minnesota ranked No. 5 in both RPI and SOS, according to ESPN's rankings Monday morning.
Gophers senior guard Akeem Springs, who transferred from Milwaukee-Wisconsin, said it means a lot to him to see this team reach the top 25.
“At a midmajor you’re not going to be in the top 25 unless you go undefeated the whole year,” Springs said. “So it’s an accomplishment. It speaks to all our hard work.”
The last time the Gophers were ranked in both the AP poll and coaches poll was on Feb. 4, 2013 at No. 18 in the country. They went from a 15-1 start and as high as No. 8 in the nation down to No. 18 and then not being ranked the rest of the season after six losses in eight games, including four straight. Back-to-back road losses to Michigan State and Illinois in early February four years ago took Minnesota’s program out of the top 25 until now.
As impressive as the turnaround from an eight-win season from last year is right now, the Gophers still have a long Big Ten schedule left to play with 14 regular season games. They have back-to-back road games this week against Michigan State on Wednesday and Penn State on Saturday.
The Spartans won 75-74 in overtime in Minneapolis in the Big Ten opener Dec. 27, but that was without freshman star Miles Bridges, who is back from an ankle injury. The Nittany Lions proved they're tougher than their 10-7 record shows with a 72-63 win against Michigan State last week.
So the Gophers can enjoy the ranking at the moment, but they will face higher expectations and need to continue to win to keep their spot in the top 25.