The term "must-win" isn't in Richard Pitino's vocabulary. Still, there's a lot at stake if his Gophers men's basketball team can't break out of a slump Monday against Nebraska at home.
Beating three of the Big Ten's top teams last month kept the Gophers in the national rankings for five weeks. It also put the program solidly in NCAA tournament projections.
But the season is now trending in the wrong direction fast.
Having fallen out of the AP poll last week, the Gophers (11-7, 4-7 Big Ten) have lost six of eight, including three in a row to unranked opponents.
The window is closing quickly for Pitino to finish with a winning record in the Big Ten, something he has done only once in seven seasons with the Gophers, in 2016-17.
The Gophers fell to 0-6 on the road in a stinging 76-72 loss at Rutgers on Thursday. But Pitino said his players are still "together" and are going to "get ours if we continue to scrap."
The Cornhuskers (4-9, 0-6) are the Big Ten's only winless team in conference play and are coming off a recent COVID-19 pause. This could be a pick-me-up game at just the right time for the Gophers, but it might not be an easy one.
"They can beat anybody," Pitino said. "They've been right there with everybody."
The two worst rebounding teams in the Big Ten meet Monday. The Gophers rank last in the league in rebounding margin but were only outrebounded 35-33 by the Scarlet Knights. Led by 7-footer Liam Robbins' double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, the Gophers grabbed 16 offensive rebounds.
Toughness had been lacking in blowouts in the Gophers' first six losses, especially in the second half of games. Being physical wasn't the problem Thursday. Execution down the stretch was the biggest issue.
Rutgers outscored the Gophers 12-2 to finish the game and kept them scoreless from the floor for the final 2 minutes, 22 seconds.
Errant jumpers by Gophers leading scorer Marcus Carr with a minute left wiped away any chance at a much-needed victory away from home. The point guard made winning plays in late-game situations before, so the Gophers aren't dwelling on how badly the game ended.
"I'm not one for looking for moral victories," Robbins said. "I really thought that we had the energy. Everyone was just really locked in, so I thought we were going to pull it out. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case [Thursday]. I'm just proud of the way my team fought. If we keep doing this, we'll see a different result for sure."
The Gophers were supposed to play at Nebraska a few days after their Jan. 16 home victory over then-No. 7 Michigan, but that game was postponed due to Nebraska's COVID-19 outbreak. The game in Lincoln still has not been rescheduled, but Huskers coach Fred Hoiberg and several players are now back after previously testing positive for the coronavirus.
"I'm happy they're safe," Pitino said. "I look to Fred as a friend. The fact that he's healthy and got through COVID is a great thing. But to kind of evaluate their team right now is insanely unfair."
Nebraska lost for the 23rd consecutive time in Big Ten play Saturday in a 66-56 loss at Michigan State. The Huskers seem a vulnerable opponent, but the Gophers have struggled as well to play consistently for 40 minutes in conference play.
Pitino's team would slip dangerously close to being out of NCAA tournament bracket projections with a loss Monday. A victory, though, could help the Gophers get back on track toward their postseason goals.
"We all have one goal at hand," senior forward Brandon Johnson said. "That's to make this season special. Our goal is to make it to the [NCAA] tournament and make a run."