The Gophers’ NCAA basketball tournament résumé and national reputation still are hurting from the damage done Jan. 16 — the night in Champaign, Ill., when they were crushed by 27 points by a bottom-of-the-Big Ten opponent.
How many more games like that can they afford?
Zero. It can’t happen again season — not if Richard Pitino’s team wants to stay in contention for an at-large tournament bid.
The Illinois team that dominated the Gophers 95-68 will be on the other bench again Wednesday night at Williams Arena as Minnesota looks to take another step in its recovery process.
Evidence of the Illini loss lingering can be found in this week’s voting in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The Gophers (15-5, 5-4 Big Ten) fell 59-57 at No. 5 Michigan on a buzzer-beater on Jan. 22 and upset then-No. 19 Iowa 92-87 on Sunday. Yet they received only one vote in the AP poll and zero in the coaches poll. The NCAA’s new NET ranking (which replaced the RPI rankings this season) has Minnesota at No. 52, 11th among Big Ten teams.
“I’m not saying we’re a top-10 [or a] top-15 team,” Pitino said. “But that’s ludicrous. That’s absolutely ludicrous.”
Being ranked in January isn’t a big-picture priority, but Pitino and his players say they want to prove the Illinois catastrophe was a fluke.
“I don’t think there’s a person in that locker room who has forgotten that loss,” senior forward and captain Jordan Murphy said. “Obviously, it stings and wasn’t really a good night for us. We really want this one … and we’re going to do everything we can in our power to get it.”
The Gophers have been a different team in the three games since that last meeting against the Illini (6-14, 2-7).
Minnesota bounced back after that loss with a 65-64 victory against Penn State on Jan. 19. Probably the biggest sign of improvement came three days later when the Gophers outplayed the Wolverines for 30 minutes in Ann Arbor. Even after squandering an eight-point second-half lead, Minnesota used a 10-0 run to tie the score 57-57 on freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur’s three-pointer with 31 seconds left. Charles Matthews’ last-second jumper with the shot clock and game clock expiring, however, resulted in a gut-wrenching two-point loss.
Still, the Gophers regrouped to upset Iowa with arguably their best offensive outing of the season. Even with freshman center Daniel Oturu out because of a shoulder injury, they shot 57 percent from the field and had 25 assists on 32 baskets.
“I think we’re better now than we were back then,” Pitino said. “But I think Illinois is, too.”
The Illini won their first Big Ten game two weeks ago vs. Minnesota after a 0-5 start. Brad Underwood’s intense ball-pressure defense caused major problems for the Gophers, who committed 15 turnovers. After double-digit losses to Iowa and Wisconsin, Illinois again surprised an upper-level Big Ten opponent, forcing 21 turnovers in a 78-67 upset of Maryland last weekend in New York. The word is out now not to take Underwood’s young but talented squad lightly.
“They’re gritty, they’re tough,” Gophers senior guard Dupree McBrayer said. “They deny every pass, make it hard to swing the ball, and they take you out of your stuff.”
Minnesota’s players have revenge on their mind Wednesday, but they realize it doesn’t matter who they’re playing moving forward. They can’t fall flat on their face like they did in Champaign.
“We’re competing,” McBrayer said. “It starts in practice, getting after it in practice. Showing that we want to get better on the defensive end. We want to do the little things that it takes to win in this league.”