Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino thought a tougher schedule this season would better prepare his team for the Big Ten Conference season.
Minnesota finished 11-0 at home in nonconference play after holding on for an 82-75 victory Friday night against Arkansas State in front of an announced crowd of 9,588 at Williams Arena.
Like a few other games this season, Pitino’s team made it closer than it had to be, watching a 17-point advantage nearly evaporate with 11 second-half turnovers.
The Gophers (12-1) would lose games like this last season, but fans are starting to see this is a much different team.
“The crowd was great tonight,” Pitino said. “It’s coming back. I think we’re all excited about that. The fans like what they’re seeing from our guys. Our guys worked really hard to climb out of the gutter, on the court, off the court to get everybody’s respect back.”
Dupree McBrayer led four Gophers players in double figures with 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting.
Winning by an average margin of nearly 13 points entering the game, the Gophers looked like they would cruise to another blowout win, up 69-56 with under six minutes left.
Arkansas State (9-4) used an 8-0 run to cut it to 69-64 after Deven Simms’ two free throws at 4:21.
The Red Wolves, who upset Georgetown on Nov. 17, were hoping for their second win against a major conference opponent.
But Minnesota responded with an 11-4 run to put the game away, highlighted by a dunk from McBrayer.
Jordan Murphy had 15 points and eight rebounds. Akeem Springs and Nate Mason added 14 and 12 points for the Gophers, who are off to their best start since the 2012-13 season.
“I’m the new guy, but you can tell there’s been a growth from this team compared to last year,” senior transfer Akeem Springs said. “It was a big goal of ours to show our improvements.”
Minnesota’s only loss came 75-67 on Nov. 28 against Florida State in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles, who are now a Top 25 team, most resembled a Big Ten opponent with their size, toughness and talent. But the Gophers got tested against St. John’s, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Texas-Arlington in nonconference play.
“Those wins showed us maybe we’re as good as we think we are,” Springs said. “But we know we can still get better.”
On Friday, the Gophers had a significant size advantage against Arkansas State, and they used an aggressive full-court pressure defense to score 33 points off 20 turnovers.
Amir Coffey, who missed the last game with a toe injury, let out a scream after soaring high to throw down an emphatic dunk in transition. Less than 30 seconds later, Mason stole a pass and finished with an uncontested layup for the largest lead of the game, 55-38.
A year ago, Minnesota was 6-6 going into the Big Ten with losses at home to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The loss to Milwaukee before Big Ten play was the start of a 14-game losing streak, including 13 consecutive losses in the conference.
Pitino hopes the close win against Arkansas State before Christmas might be the challenge the Gophers needed to be ready for Tuesday’s Big Ten opener against Michigan State at home.
“Sitting at 12-1 hasn’t happened a lot here, so we’re proud of it,” Pitino said. “There are times during the game where I look at our team and say, ‘Wow, we’re pretty good.’ Then there are times I saw, ‘Wow, we’re pretty young.’ We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to stay humble.”