Richard Pitino barely remembers anything about the first time he coached the Gophers against Wisconsin in 2014, even though it was one of the biggest victories of his career.
Minnesota upset No. 9 Wisconsin 81-68 at Williams Arena three years ago Sunday.
“I remember winning, and that was a great feeling,” Pitino said.
Since the Gophers won that first meeting under Pitino, they have gone 0-5 against the Badgers. No one on Minnesota’s roster knows what it feels like to beat Wisconsin.
Add on top of the rivalry that the Gophers (15-4, 3-3) are coming off two straight losses and that the Barn is close to selling out Saturday for the first time in nearly two years, and this one against No. 17 Wisconsin (15-3, 4-1) is as big as January games can get.
Pitino downplays the significance a bit. But his players realize how much it would mean to gain their confidence back with a win Saturday.
“It’s very exciting,” junior captain Nate Mason said. “We definitely have a better chance of winning than we have previous years. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. It’s going to be fun to see how our young guys react to all the fans in a big rivalry game. We’re ready for it.”
Are the Gophers really ready to compete against arguably the Big Ten’s top team?
Their past two games show the opposite.
Minnesota suffered its largest margin of defeat this season in an 18-point loss Jan. 11 at Michigan State. The Gophers followed that up by blowing a 14-point first-half lead to fall 52-50 at Penn State last Saturday.
Both losses revealed big issues with offensive execution. The team shot under 30 percent while scoring 18 points or fewer in different halves in the two games. The 20 turnovers against Penn State were a season high.
“Obviously, we couldn’t hit shots,” Mason said. “We had two bad offensive games. It took a toll on us, especially with our confidence. The whole coaching staff stayed on us about keeping confident, keep shooting and doing what you’re doing. This week really helped us. We got a lot of shots up, a lot of new plays.”
Since his 31-point, 11-assist performance in a 91-82 overtime win at Purdue Jan. 1, Mason is shooting just 13-for-48 from the field, including 2-for-12 from three-point range. Fellow starters Dupree McBrayer (13-for-38) and Jordan Murphy (11-for-29) haven’t been any better offensively.
Pitino might tinker with the lineup as a solution Saturday. The Gophers have looked at starting senior guard Akeem Springs in place of McBrayer. Springs leads the team with 38 three-pointers on 38.8 percent shooting.
“We’ve looked at it this week,” Pitino said. “It’s not necessarily from a starting-lineup standpoint. It’s maybe just changing a little bit of the lineup, substitutions and those things — seeing if that will work. They’ve all looked good. Dupree has looked good. Akeem has looked good.”
Wisconsin’s strong frontcourt of Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown will look to take over on the boards. And the Gophers got outrebounded in the past two games while giving up a combined 25 offensive rebounds.
“I expect a hard-fought war on the glass,” Murphy said. “They have guys who can rebound. We have guys who can rebound. So it’s going to be a big fight.”
After losing two in a row for the first time, the Gophers fell out of the Top 25 this week. They will also be underdogs Saturday against Wisconsin at home, which in a way puts them back in familiar territory in this border battle. And Minnesota’s players hope that motivates them to rise to the occasion in their biggest game so far this season.
“People definitely respect us more than in the past,” Mason said. “But we want more respect. We want to get to the top. We want to be able to have the chance to win the Big Ten.”