Now or never: Gophers men’s basketball must go on run to make NCAA tournament
MINNEAPOLIS — Parallels exist between the Gophers men’s basketball team’s current season and last year’s.
Last season, Minnesota lost a heartbreaking road game to a struggling Nebraska team on Feb. 13 — a game that left coach Richard Pitino furious over pivotal officiating calls against the U. At that point, the Gophers’ NCAA tournament hopes looked like a long shot.
On Sunday, the U fell apart and lost to then-No. 21 Iowa at Williams Arena — a game in which Pitino lamented his team’s lack of clutch play in a scoreless, turnover-plagued final five minutes. Afterward, the U’s NCAA tournament dreams seemed dim.
But like the 2018-19 season showed, all is not lost for the Gophers right now. Last year’s more-veteran team produced an upset of eventual Big Ten champion Purdue at Williams Arena in early March and then gained two Big Ten tournament wins in Chicago to help punch the Gophers’ ticket to March Madness.
This year, the Gophers (12-12, 6-8 Big Ten) need another hot streak within a small margin for error in their final six regular-season games, starting with Indiana (16-9, 6-8) at The Barn at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Pitino pegged five wins in the final seven regular-season games to get in the tournament, but they started 0-1.
A big fish arrives when Big Ten-leading Maryland (21-4, 11-3) visits The Barn on Feb. 26. Another high-quality win can be had March 1 against Wisconsin (15-10, 8-6) in Madison. There’s also the potential for remaining unfinished business going into the conference tournament March 11-15 in Indianapolis.
To move on in the short term, Pitino offered a change of pace by skipping the film review of the Iowa game. He asked players, “Who made a mistake? Raise your hand.”
As many players’ palms were extended, they discussed the errors — and “boom, we move on,” Pitino said. He said he took the unconventional approach because the problems were not based on one part of their play causing the issue but rather one-off miscues.
Pitino was willing to turn back the page Tuesday, saying he does see similarities to last season — to a certain extent.
“Our schedule is better this year than last year,” he said. “(But last year,) we had more wins to feel good about. … Still with some opportunities there (this season), where we can have two or three good weeks and can be in the NCAA tournament.”
Last year’s team benefited from Amir Coffey taking over games, but with him leaving for the NBA/G League this season, other players will need to step up, primarily Daniel Oturu and Marcus Carr.
Junior guard Payton Willis watched last season as a transfer from Vanderbilt, but saw how it wasn’t just one guy leading the way. “The role players contributed as well, maybe not as much scoring, but on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “Everybody just stepped up in those must-win games, so that is what I think is going to have to happen this year as well.”
Pitino acknowledged he feels stressed and has had sleepless nights as the need to produce grows and the time to do it in shrinks. But he’s trying to stay in the moment, and is working to keep his players there, too.
“You narrow your focus to the next play,” Pitino said. “You just try to get them to not necessarily focus on the result of the game, but just chip away every four minutes (of the game).”
The Gophers are currently 12th in the 14-team Big Ten and will be counting on the NCAA tournament selection committee to increase the record eight conference teams which got into the Big Dance a year ago. ESPN, for instance, has 10 Big Ten teams in this year’s tournament in its latest projection.
“One thing the committee has shown is league standings don’t matter,” Pitino said. “… They care about the whole body of work, from November to March; that’s what they care about. … The game has changed, you don’t need 20 wins to get in anymore. You don’t need to be above .500, whether or not you think that is right or wrong. … They have said they want you to play tough schedules and then seem to be judging on the quality of our wins.”
The Gophers have two wins over Ohio State and one win apiece against Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State. But more wins, especially big ones, will be needed to keep alive similarities to last year.