A battle between two win-starved teams is set for Wednesday night in Lincoln, Neb. For the Gophers, it represents their first test in a pivotal five-game stretch that could make or break their season as they face a team in the Nebraska Cornhuskers that hasn’t won in nearly a month.
The Huskers aren’t the first desperate team Minnesota has faced this season. The lesson they’ve learned, however, is that desperate teams can provide some of the toughest tests.
Illinois, winless in the Big Ten and losers of five in a row back on Jan. 16, drubbed the Gophers by 27 points in Champaign. Penn State came to Williams Arena on a five-game skid — also winless in conference — and missed a shot at the buzzer that would have sprung the upset. Last Sunday the Gophers were scarcely competitive at Michigan State, which had dropped three in a row entering the game, losing by 24 at the Breslin Center.
Nebraska has plummeted after once being a ranked team. They’ve lost seven consecutive and are missing their injured senior star Isaac Copeland. But the Gophers have never beaten the Cornhuskers in Pinnacle Bank Arena, where they play Wednesday night. Minnesota is 1-6 on the road this season with all but one of their losses coming by double digits. For the first time this season, they’ve lost three games in a row, falling below .500 for the first time in Big Ten play.
“We’ve got to learn to take punches and throw them back,” said senior Dupree McBrayer.
Head coach Richard Pitino pointed out that in 20-plus-point losses at Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan State, the Gophers were manhandled by their opponents’ physicality and didn’t have an answer. Having Eric Curry in and out of the lineup with injury concerns and freshman Daniel Oturu still learning his way defensively has made life tough for the Gophers against Big Ten big men. The Spartans’ Nick Ward was the latest to dominate with 22 points and nine rebounds against the Curry-less Gophers.
“Instead of cutting harder and being more physical, we didn’t do that, said Pitino. “Or if it’s pushing you off the block we didn’t fight for the post position. Every little thing that Michigan State does to you, we didn’t respond well to that.
“If you want to win in this league, you’ve got to embrace the physicality in this league.”
With seven games left in the regular season, the Gophers likely have to win four or more to position themselves for a tournament bid. Three of their next five are on the road against bottom-half teams in Nebraska, Rutgers and Northwestern. Sandwiched in between are home games against Indiana and Michigan.
Minnesota needs to learn how to win on the road, and fast. They are 3-15 away from home since the start of last season. This year, with a mostly healthy team, they are averaging 59.6 points per game on the road, 13 points below their full-season average.
“Obviously everybody’s better on their home court,” said Pitino. “I think it’s a little bit of everything just kind of adds up. Tough teams win on the road. Tough teams find a way to get it done.”
“When you have your home fan-base,” said McBrayer, “they’re like a sixth man, so it’s a big factor. When it’s just us, the team is all we got, so we have to pull through together, everybody has to stay with each other.”
The Gophers’ three veterans, McBrayer, Murphy and Amir Coffey, combined for just 17 points against the Spartans, while freshmen Gabe Kalscheur and Oturu combined for 29 in defeat. If Minnesota is going to respond to their lowest point of the season, their experienced starters will need to initiate the turnaround.
“Me and Dupree have gone through months without winning, and then we’ve lost five straight in this league,” said Murphy, referring to the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. “I think, knowing what it takes to break through, and get past those hard times and get past those slumps, I think the guys come to us for advice mainly on that, just knowing that we’ve been here before. It’s not any time to panic or to start pointing fingers.”
Murphy referenced the five-game losing streak the Gophers experienced in 2016-17 when they fell to 3-6 in Big Ten play, only to rattle off eight straight wins and reach the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed.
Few teams are immune to the rollercoaster ride of the Big Ten season. It’s all about halting the losing streaks before they derail a team’s confidence.
“You go through stages in a season where you’re written off and you’re pronounced dead,” said Pitino. “Wisconsin had it early, Purdue had it early, Ohio State had it and all of a sudden now they’ve risen from the dead. We all kind of go through it, and the biggest thing is you can’t let it snowball, and you’ve got to find a way to stop it.”
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