Through 12 topsy-turvy Big Ten games, the Gophers have leveled out at 6-6, tied for sixth in the Big Ten standings and in position for a No. 8 seed in the Big Dance, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
In a season of streaks resembling a haiku (three wins, five losses, three wins), Minnesota’s success has closely paralleled its ability to close basketball games. During their hot early-season start, the Gophers outscored Purdue 18-9 in overtime to win on the road, then followed that up by outscoring Northwestern 30-19 in the final dozen minutes in Evanston to record another road comeback.
The five-game skid was marked by four tight losses, most notably an overtime loss to Wisconsin and a pair of blown double-digit leads against Penn State and Maryland.
Now they’re back to .500 after pulling away from Illinois and Rutgers on the road and fending off Iowa in a double-overtime barn-burner (pun intended).
As Cold Omaha wrote when the Gophers were 3-4 in the Big Ten, the conference season was shaping up to be a series of coin flips in which all 14 teams were capable of beating any Big Ten foe on a given night.
That narrative hasn’t changed in the past several weeks, and it’s holding true across the Big Ten landscape.
Fans may be in for the most entertaining Big Ten tournament in recent memory
First-place Wisconsin was taken to overtime by last-place Rutgers and third-to-last-place Nebraska. Second-place Maryland was knocked off by a bottom-half team in Penn State. Second-to-last place Illinois went on the road to beat Northwestern … then Northwestern walked into Wisconsin and beat the Big Ten-leading Badgers.
Fans may be in for the most entertaining Big Ten tournament in recent memory, considering it shapes up to be as predictable as a rock-paper-scissors tournament. The Big Ten could certainly boast itself as one of the deeper conferences in the nation, though it doesn’t seem to contain a prime national title contender at the moment. The NCAA released its first-ever in-season look at the Top-16 tournament seeds, which contained nary a Big Ten squad. In theory, the highest seed coming out of the conference could be a 5.
This might be scary for front-runners like Wisconsin and Maryland, but for a Gophers team just trying to make the field, it’s less consequential. “I don’t think it matters a whole lot,” said Gophers head coach Richard Pitino of the seeding. “I’m sure, if it brings some attention to the game, great. I’m sure that’s what they’re trying to do, to get people talking about it.”
With the margin between conference leader and cellar dweller as tight as ever, there is no room for error in close games, as the Gophers have figured out. Last Friday, guard Akeem Springs and center Reggie Lynch emphasized the importance of staying locked-in for a full 40 minutes. “It’s not the whole game or a whole mindset, it’s really just like two-minute stretches,” Lynch said. “Just a two-minute stretch. You’ve got to stay tight for the whole 40 minutes.”
Springs echoed the sentiment. “A few possessions,” he said about the deciding factor in most games. “Who has a better two-minute stretch at the end of a game?”
It certainly wasn’t the Gophers during their dismal stretch of five losses in a row. While their 65-47 loss at Michigan State was virtually over by halftime, making the final two minutes moot, the Gophers were outscored in the final two minutes in each of their subsequent four losses: 4-2 at Penn State, 6-3 in the overtime against Wisconsin, 8-4 at Ohio State and 9-4 against Maryland.
A common thread in that stretch was the team’s habitual breakdown in the half-court offense that resulted in low-percentage shots. While the Gophers have thrived in transition with their athletic guards, their sets began stagnating when games slowed down in the closing minutes. Play-by-play logs reveal a litany of turnovers and missed jumpers. In some cases, the jumpers were necessitated by a growing deficit and a dwindling clock, but other times they were forced or ill-advised, such as Springs’ contested 3-point heave at the buzzer of the Wisconsin game when a 2-pointer would have tied it. (Going for the win in that scenario made some sense, but the Gophers failed to penetrate inside the arc to move the defense and open up a better perimeter look.)
After losing five consecutive, Minnesota got a week off from games before its Feb. 4 contest against Illinois and has not lost since. In a college season that rarely allows time for extended practices or self-scouting, the Gophers received their bye week at ostensibly the most opportune time.
In their two recent road wins they did a much better job of playing from ahead, never trailing by fewer than five points in the final 15 minutes of either game. Their Iowa victory, though controversial and perhaps aided by officiating, represented a significant hurdle for Minnesota; a game where they surrendered a big lead yet found a way to hang on after two OT sessions. “A lot of our losses have been really, really close losses,” said sophomore Jordan Murphy, “so that just really gives us a lot of confidence going into the next game, and the other close games we have, we know that we can just grind it out.”
One player often in position to influence outcomes has been junior Nate Mason, who’s been given the ball in crunch time on numerous occasions. After missing a series of clutch shots throughout the season, Mason came up with a driving, game-tying layup against Iowa to get the proverbial monkey off his back. “He’s gonna have the ball in his hands at the end of games,” said Pitino, “and then you put yourself in position where you’re gonna make a shot or not make a shot. All good players go through that.”
A clean slate
The Gophers are beginning to shed the baggage of their January meltdowns and have started February on a much more positive note. Winning in the Big Ten requires mental toughness, which is hard to coach. But Minnesota seemed to turn a corner in this regard last week, specifically in the win over Iowa. After Murphy picked up his fifth foul on a questionable call, a livid Pitino was held back by his players, who told him, ‘Coach, we’ve got you. We’re gonna win this game.’ Not only was it a galvanizing moment for the players but a teachable moment for the fourth-year coach.
“That’s all it can take is one or two lapses of judgments, mentally or physically,” said Pitino. “We’ve had that. We’ve been so darn close this year. We’ve been pretty good at, ‘OK, move onto the next play, move onto the next play,’ and so I just always try to focus on that, and I try not to worry about officiating or anything like that.”
Exiting January and hitting the halfway point of the Big Ten season with a 3-6 record was a bleak turn of events for the once-ranked Gophers, but a new month has ostensibly opened the door to a Minnesota turnaround as the team is playing with more urgency and better attention to detail. In the three-game winning streak, they’ve yet to be beaten on the boards, have turned the ball over fewer than 10 times per game and have held teams to 26 percent from beyond the arc.
“Whether we win or lose, I don’t know. But we’re obviously in a lot of close games.”
Minnesota gets to play four its final six Big Ten games at home and likely needs to win just two or three to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Richard Pitino.
If the final third of the conference season is anything like the first two-thirds, it’s sure to be packed with drama. “This is an exciting team to watch,” said Pitino. “Whether we win or lose, I don’t know. But we’re obviously in a lot of close games, so from a fun perspective, they’re getting their money’s worth.”