EAST LANSING, MICH. – Gophers coach Richard Pitino liked the underdog role for his basketball team a whole lot better than being ranked.
Well, that ranking might be short-lived.
Trailing by 22 points at halftime Wednesday night at Michigan State, Minnesota looked nothing like the 24th-ranked team in the country or the team that won three consecutive Big Ten games, including two on the road.
Did Pitino’s players finally let the early praise go to their heads?
If so, the Gophers definitely were humbled in a 65-47 loss in their rematch against the Spartans in front of 14,797 at Breslin Center.
The Gophers (15-3, 3-2 Big Ten) were held to their fewest points in a game since a 64-46 loss at Ohio State in Pitino’s first season in 2013-14.
“To me, it’s you’re ranked and everybody loves you and all this nonsense,” Pitino said. “It’s too early for any of it.
“We’ve played five league games. We got a bunch of time left. There are no easy games in this league.”
Nate Mason was interviewed on the Big Ten Network on Tuesday, saying the Gophers had Big Ten championship goals this season. His team was tied for first place entering the week.
But at this time a year ago, the Gophers were wondering if they could win a conference game — in the midst of what would become a 0-13 start in league play. They finished 2-16.
The Izzone crowd chanted “Overrated! Overrated! Overrated!” as the final buzzer sounded Wednesday. It’s too early to tell if the Gophers are just that or the real deal, but how they respond Saturday at Penn State will reveal a lot.
“It’s a marathon,” Pitino said. “It’s not over. We’ve not arrived. Our guys hopefully understand that. I think every game is hard in this league.”
Miles Bridges scored all 16 of his points in the first half to lead the Spartans (12-6, 4-1), who held Minnesota to 33 percent shooting from the field, including 3-for-16 from three-point range.
Mason, who shot 0-for-6 in the first half, scored all of his team-high 14 points in the second half on 6-for-15 shooting for the Gophers, who played Michigan State for the second time in five games.
The Spartans hadn’t been unranked playing against a ranked Minnesota squad since 1997, but they didn’t need to see the Gophers in the top 25 to be ready to play. They came back from a 15-point deficit to win 75-74 in overtime at Minnesota in the Big Ten opener Dec. 27.
That was without Bridges, who was sidelined for seven games because of an injured ankle. The bouncy 6-7 freshman looked healthy Wednesday, though, opening with six consecutive points, including a power dunk over Jordan Murphy to ignite the crowd.
Murphy, who had 12 points and a career-high 21 rebounds in the first matchup, was held to six points and four rebounds in 32 minutes. His starting frontcourt mate, Reggie Lynch, struggled, too, with only two points and three turnovers in 17 minutes before fouling out.
“It’s just a reality check,” Murphy said. “The rankings and things are nice, but we can’t pay attention to all that. We have to pay attention to getting better.”
The Gophers relied on hot shooting early in road victories at Purdue and Northwestern, but Dupree McBrayer was the only player in rhythm in the first half against the Spartans’ suffocating defense. McBrayer scored 11 consecutive points to cut MSU’s lead to 24-17 with 5:27 left in the half.
But the Spartans, who shot 52 percent in the first half, went on a 15-0 run behind eight points from Bridges to take a 39-17 halftime lead.
The Gophers’ largest deficit previously this season had been 19 in the second half of a 75-67 loss Nov. 28 at Florida State, which is now the No. 9 ranked team and recently blew out Duke.
On Wednesday, Michigan State looked like the top-10 team it had been in the preseason rankings, not the bunch that lost five nonconference games and fell to Penn State last week.
The Nittany Lions surely will look at how the Spartans dominated the Gophers and expect to pull off the upset Saturday.
“So we’ve got to come back with a big response,” McBrayer said. “We have to go play like we normally play.”