Pitino’s Gophers Set Up For Historically Good Finish

Photo: John Autey - Pioneer Press

The Minnesota Golden Gophers had the most difficult start to a conference schedule of any team in the country. You don’t agree? Find me another college basketball team that started conference play against EIGHT consecutive top-25 teams and I’ll amend this blog.

That gauntlet stretch is now over (finished 4-4) and the Gophers’ first unranked conference opponent, the Maryland Terrapins, will come to The Barn Saturday at 1 PM.

vs#13 ILL#4 IOWA#17 MSU#6 WISC#25 OSU#10 MICH#5 IOWA#7 MICH

Schedule Slow Down

The scheduling gods have reversed course on the Gophers, after their 4-4 start vs that brutal stretch. Not only do their opponents start to get easier from here, but they’ll have a lot more rest too.

When Minnesota takes the court on Saturday afternoon vs the Terrapins, it will mark a full week since the last time they played competitive basketball (victory vs Michigan on 1/16). This week of rest followed a 6-day break between that win vs Michigan and a loss that came @ Iowa before it.

If you include those two games vs Michigan and Iowa, the Gophers will play just 5 games between Jan 7 and Feb 7 (31 days). That’s not even 1 game per 7-day week. Talk about a lot of rest for a basketball team that’s supposed to be grinding out a difficult conference schedule.

On top of all the rest they’ve been getting (and will continue to get for the next couple weeks) there isn’t a ranked team to be seen on the schedule for the next SEVEN games.

Home vs #22 Illinois currently stands as the only ranked opponent left on the Gophers’ schedule. Minnesota is 11-0 (4-0) on the season at Williams Arena (knock on raised hardwood).


Other Big Ten Teams Must Grind

While the Gophers schedule eases up, and they take some time off to ramp up for a final stretch filled with unranked opponents, other Big Ten teams ahead and behind them in the conference standings, will do the opposite.

This table below lists the top-8 Big Ten teams, along with their conference and AP Poll rankings. Next to each team is the top-25 opponents remaining on their schedule (sorted left to right by schedule date).

1#7MICH8-1#22 ILL#10 WISC#15 OSU#4 IOWA
2#4IOWA6-2#22 ILL#15 OSU#10 WISC#15 OSU#7 MICH#10 WISC
3#10WISC6-2#15 OSU#22 ILL#7 MICH#4 IOWA#22 ILL#4 IOWA
4#22ILL6-3#4 IOWA#10 WISC#7 MICH#17 MIN#10 WISC#15 OSU
5PUR6-4#17 MIN#17 MIN#10 WISC
6#15OSU5-4#10 WISC#4 IOWA#7 MICH#4 IOWA#22 ILL
7#17MIN4-4#22 ILL
8IND4-4#7 MICH#22 ILL#4 IOWA#15 OSU#17 MIN#7 MICH

As you can see, other teams that surround the Gophers still have up to SIX games remaining vs top Big Ten (and national) teams.

Games still have to be played on the court.

The easing schedule means absolutely nothing, if the Minnesota Gophers can’t continue to bring the energy at home and turn it up on the road. The Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball and unranked teams have been upsetting their ranked counterparts all season.

Maryland for example, Minnesota’s opponent Saturday afternoon, has already upset both Wisconsin and Illinois on the road this season.

Those two victories are the Terps’ only wins in conference play, however (2-6). A focused Minnesota team should pull out a victory with relative ease, given their track-record at Williams Arena in 2020-21.

Time to make hay… and history.

This is a stretch that Richard Pitino needs to take advantage of. It’s an opportunity to rack up some victories and get rest, while other top teams in the conference are ripping each other apart.

At 4-4 in Big Ten play and looking forward to a more favorable schedule, Pitino’s 2020-21 Gophers should easily finish with the program’s first above-.500 conference record since 2016-17.

Their 11-7 Big Ten record that season was good for a 4th-place finish. That’s the best conference standing the Minnesota Gophers have held in men’s basketball since 1996-1997, when Bobby Jackson and Clem Haskins DID NOT lead the maroon and gold to a 10-2, 1st Place Big Ten record or a Final Four appearance.

So if Pitino wants to quiet the haters and possibly grab another extension when this season ends, he’ll calmly navigate this final stretch in dominating fashion and secure a top 3-4 seed in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments come March.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sport Fan

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