The Wild started the season at 1-6 and, at that point, 8.5% of the way through the schedule, the hockey lads were dismissed as having no chance to finish in the top eight and reach the Western Conference playoffs.
Two months later, the Wild has been piling up points and we’re wondering if this could be the summer when the Stanley Cup comes here for more than two-day visits in the hands of Minnesotans playing elsewhere.
OK, maybe not, but the playoffs are appearing more likely than not.
Eight miles west of the Wild’s St. Paul home, there was a similar cautionary tale against early gloom being offered Sunday evening in Williams Arena, where Richard Pitino’s Gophers were taking on Ohio State, 9-0 and rated third in the country.
The Gophers entered the game at 4-5, they had played miserably in the Big Ten opener six days earlier in Iowa City, and even outlets populated by zealous Goph-heads were speculating as to whether Pitino would survive the conference disaster that was looming in his seventh season.
Five minutes into Sunday’s second half, the answer was beginning to look a lot like “yes” on Pitino; in fact, maybe he’d earned himself another extension.
The Gophers managed to throw a defense at Ohio State with such terrific court coverage that it looked as much like a zone as man-to-man at times. They challenged the Buckeyes at the three-point line and made things tough for 6-9 senior Kaleb Wesson inside.
This was against a team near the top nationally in the revered KenPom offensive efficiency stats. The Gophers’ ability to follow a defensive plan reduced Ohio State to a confused 8-for-25 (32%) in the first half and 23-for-60 (38.3%) for the game.
The final was 84-71. The Buckeyes never challenged after trailing 38-29 at halftime. And now, the Gophers are alive and trying to bottle up Sunday’s effort to toss it at Purdue when conference play resumes Jan. 2.
It was hard to fathom this was the same team that was a noncompetitive 20-point loser to Iowa, until you looked at Marcus Carr’s stat line.
Carr was 1-for-10 against Iowa and scored two points. Throw in 0-for-10 for Gabe Kalscheur and 2-for-9 for Payton Willis, and a popular lament of Gophers followers was: “How are you going to beat anybody with guard play and outside shooting like that?”
This was how: Carr, the sophomore transfer, turned it around with 12-for-17 shooting, eight consecutive on free throws, and 35 points — the most for a Gophers player in a Big Ten game since Kris Humphries scored 36 against Indiana in 2004.
Carr also had seven assists, a good month for Humphries in his lone year with the Gophers.
Pitino mentioned Carr’s steady emotions and said: “He handles adversity very well.”
Indeed. From 10% shooting to 71% shooting, from two points against a midpack Big Ten team to 35 points against the No. 3 team in the country.
“Ohio State probably would’ve been No. 1 this week, if we hadn’t won this game,” Pitino said.
When you combine unlikelihood with importance, this goes down as the No. 1 victory in Pitino’s seven regular seasons. There was one over No. 6 Maryland in 2016 that resulted in a court-storming, but that came after the first Big Ten victory late in a horrible season.
That was a satirical court-storming. The students jumped onto the court again Sunday night, but this was in tribute to a mighty effort, not just for the laughs.
A year ago, Gophers fandom and Pitino were feeling righteous when Carr was not rewarded immediate eligibility after transferring from Pittsburgh. Sunday, Pitino was able to cite the upside of that NCAA decision:
“Carr doesn’t look like a sophomore. But he is. We have him for three more years.”
Carr came from Toronto to the University of Pittsburgh, played a season for the Panthers, sat out last season in Minnesota, and he’s still only 20. There was a tendency to look at Carr’s 10 points per game at Pitt and suggest last winter’s crying about his unavailability last season was highly overdone.
“He was an OK freshman at Pitt; how good can he be?” some (of us) wondered.
Sunday’s smallish yet energetic crowd (9,854 announced) got the answer:
Marcus Carr can be outstanding, even after being … ah, less than outstanding.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.