Richard Pitino didn't want his Gophers looking too far ahead last week as their Christmas Day matchup with Iowa approached, but it was hard to stop them from doing so.
For one, the Gophers can't spend time with their families over the holiday break during the pandemic, which leaves even more time to overthink an opponent. And this Iowa basketball team is hard to block out, mentally. The Hawkeyes are the Big Ten's best team, with the conference's best player.
So instead of hanging out, opening presents and drinking eggnog, players are devoting brain space to the border battle.
"Playing on Christmas is going to be a big deal to me," senior Eric Curry said. "Gives us that NBA kind of vibe. Just getting that attention."
Friday's game between the No. 4 Hawkeyes (6-1) and the Gophers (7-1) at Williams Arena doesn't have as much broad appeal as Christmas Day NBA games. Iowa, the highest ranked of the seven Big Ten teams in the Top 25, has stature, but Minnesota is receiving only a few votes in the poll.
Still, every Big Ten game has the potential to be must-see TV with the conference arguably the deepest in college basketball.
The Gophers lost their Big Ten opener by 27 points at Illinois on Dec. 15, but they bounced back with a 90-82 win Sunday vs. St. Louis.
Pitino doesn't seem as excited as his players about the game being on Christmas. He isn't looking forward to waking up his players early for daily COVID-19 testing and then waiting until the evening to play the Hawkeyes. But he said the Big Ten made the right call.
"It's better than sitting in their dorms, not doing anything," Pitino said.
Iowa senior big man Luka Garza, who was leading the nation in scoring at 29.3 points per game entering Tuesday, gave Hawkeyes fans an early Christmas gift when he returned to school. He's been a one-man wrecking crew against opposing defenses, including a 41-point game and twice scoring 30-plus points in one half this year.
It will be even tougher to slow Garza if Gophers 7-footer Liam Robbins has foul trouble like he did in the 92-65 loss at Illinois. That set up Illini center Kofi Cockburn to score 33 points.
The Hawkeyes rank No. 1 in offensive efficiency in the country, according to KenPom.com.
"Garza's a very unique player, but they've also got very good pieces around him," Pitino said. "They've got great length. There are a lot of guys who are going to be playing on Christmas Day who have never seen them. So it's going to be a bit of an adjustment period going against such a high-powered fast offense."
Last season, the Gophers were steamrollered 72-52 in early December at Iowa. Point guard Marcus Carr, who is averaging nearly 24 points this season, was held to two points on 1-for-10 shooting that night.
The last border battle was even more demoralizing, the U's 58-55 loss at the Barn on Feb. 16. The Hawkeyes trailed by eight points with just under 5½ minutes to play but scored the last 11 points to escape despite being held to their lowest point total of the season.
"Daniel [Oturu] missed some key free throws down the stretch, so I can say that now that he's in the NBA," joked Pitino, who said his wife questioned why he wanted to be cranky watching that last Iowa game again.
Pitino took away some positives heading into Friday's big Christmas Day rematch with the Hawkeyes.
"The score was in the high 50s," he said. "When was the last time someone did that to Iowa? We were leading a lot of the game. There was a lot to learn from. Iowa just made one or two plays over us, but totally different team for us. There are some similarities with their team."