The Gophers definitely let one slip away in Tuesday’s 75-74 overtime loss at home against Michigan State in the Big Ten opener.
The question now is when will Richard Pitino’s team pick up its first Big Ten victory?
A year ago, Minnesota didn’t win a conference game until Feb. 18 vs. Maryland at home.
A much more grueling schedule faces the Gophers (12-2) to begin Big Ten play this season, with four of the next five games on the road. Pitino's Big Ten road record is 4-23 in his first three seasons, including 0-9 last season.
The January portion of the schedule looks like this: at Purdue on Sunday, at Northwestern Thursday, vs. Ohio State Jan. 8, at Michigan State Jan. 11, at Penn State Jan. 14, vs. Wisconsin Jan. 21, at Ohio State Jan. 25 and vs. Maryland Jan. 28. Ouch.
Purdue demolished Iowa 89-67 Wednesday in West Lafayette, Ind. The No. 15-ranked Boilermakers looked like the Big Ten’s best team on opening night. Five players scored in double figures. The conference’s leading scorer, Peter Jok (22.6 points per game), was held to 13 points on 4-for-15 shooting.
Minnesota hasn’t won at Purdue since 2005, and it has never beaten a ranked Boilermakers team in West Lafayette, Ind. So the Gophers would be making history if they got their first Big Ten win this weekend. This wouldn't be a bigger upset than Nebraska's shocker over Indiana on Wednesday, though.
The Northwestern game is winnable. But the Wildcats are a better team than the one that owned the Gophers in 2015-16. Minnesota lost to the Wildcats by 25 points in Evanston, Ill. and 24 points at the Barn. The Gophers only have one victory (2014) in the last six games in Evanston. Hard to bet against that.
The Gophers could easily return home 0-3 facing a must-win game vs. Ohio State at the Barn. The Buckeyes aren’t as talented as they’ve been in the past, which was evident in a home loss to Florida Atlantic. But Thad Matta’s team is athletic and nearly upset Virginia on the road this season. So this is still a hard pick for potentially Minnesota’s first conference win.
Pitino took the Gophers into Michigan State and won two seasons ago for the first time since the program's Final Four season in 1996-97. So we can't say it's impossible to do again. The Spartans aren't what they once were. But they already won at Minnesota this year without freshman Miles Bridges. What if Bridges is back healthy for the next meeting in East Lansing. And there's that Nick Ward guy who looked like Shaq against Minnesota on Tuesday.
The best chance for the Gophers' first Big Ten road win will be Jan. 14 at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are the only projected lower-tier conference team in the first half of the schedule. Regardless if they have a Big Ten win at this point or not this is another must-win Gopher game. Why? The schedule picks up again with a tough stretch against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Maryland to end the month of January.
My prediction for the Gophers’ first Big Ten win is against Ohio State in the next home game. That means opening 0-3 in the conference after a 0-14 start in 2015-16 and 0-5 start in 2014-15. Wouldn't be a good look for Pitino. But let’s see how it plays out. After being favored to beat the Spartans on Tuesday, the Gophers will be in a familiar role as the underdog for a while. We’ll see if they can surprise us now.
UPCOMING BIG TEN SCHEDULE IN JANUARY
SUNDAY AT PURDUE
THURSDAY AT NORTHWESTERN
JAN. 8 VS. OHIO STATE
JAN. 11 AT MICHIGAN STATE
JAN. 14 AT PENN STATE
JAN. 21 VS. WISCONSIN
JAN. 25 AT OHIO STATE
JAN. 28 VS. MARYLAND