The Big Ten season comes to an end Friday night for the Minnesota Golden Gophers as they visit Maryland.
Believe it or not, this time last year the Gophers were already eight days into their offseason.
The Big Ten altered its schedule this season to give teams two additional conference games — upping the total from 18 to 20. In addition, they pushed the Big Ten Tournament back to its original week, lining up the championship game with Selection Sunday. A year ago, the conference held its tournament in late February to accommodate other events at Madison Square Garden, sending the Gophers packing before the calendar turned to March after their first-round loss.
The longer schedule has condensed conference play, however, eliminating “bye weeks” that teams enjoyed in previous years. Minnesota didn’t get a layoff longer than four days during conference play in 2018-19, and for the second year in a row they were forced to play two Big Ten games in early December. But head coach Richard Pitino generally is fond of the extra games to increase the competitiveness of the schedule.
“I don’t love the early two games. I don’t like that. I wish we could figure something out there,” said Pitino, “but I think it’s good for basketball. The ACC’s going to it, I think next year. I don’t know if we’re the best conference, I’m not going to say that, but man, we’re competitive. I’m watching that Penn State – Rutgers game last night. It’s a war. Sold-out crowd, and those guys are competing, and that’s what this league’s all about.”
The longer schedule also granted teams an extra home game in conference play. The Gophers’ 10th home game in the Big Ten turned out to be their most important as they upset No. 11 Purdue on Senior Night.
“I like the 20 games,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “A lot of people think that’s too much, but it’s great for our school, it’s great for our fans. Our fans don’t want to watch us play people we’re going to beat by 40. They want to watch Minnesota play Purdue and Minnesota play Indiana. They like those games.”
The Gophers have plenty at stake in Game No. 20 at Maryland. A win could vault them to the sixth seed in the Big Ten Tournament if coupled with an Iowa loss at Nebraska, while a loss combined with an Ohio State win over Wisconsin could send them down to the eighth seed. And of course, NCAA seeding is on the line, as well.
“If we win that,” said junior Amir Coffey, “we’ll pretty much be a lock in the tournament.”
Stuck in a six-game funk where he shot just 31 percent from the floor and averaged 9.2 points per game, Coffey made a subtle adjustment that seems to be paying off in his last two outings.
For the first time in his career, the junior delivered back-to-back 30-point games in a pair of Gophers wins, which he credits in part to a focus on the jump stop.
“That’s just something that [Pitino] wanted us to focus on last few practices,” Coffey said. “Just avoiding charges and staying on balance and being able to make plays after you jump stop.”
Coffey was bottled up and held to six points and 2-of-15 shooting in a loss versus Michigan on Feb. 21 when his drives to the basket were continually repelled and led to tough shots.
“I think he saw versus Michigan he was trying to get fouled,” said Pitino, “where [against Purdue] he was just trying to score the ball under control.”
In his last two games Coffey has posted shooting splits of 58/60/74. As impressive have been his rebounding totals of 12 and eight, the two highest in his Big Ten career.
“I told him whatever he’s been doing the last two games before, just keep doing it,” said senior Dupree McBrayer. “But I think a big thing is he’s getting the rebound and he’s pushing it. He’s hard to stop in transition because he’s 6-8.”
Eric Curry was ruled out for the season prior to Tuesday’s game at Purdue with a right foot injury that he suffered during a fall in practice.
It was the latest in a series of setbacks for the redshirt sophomore big man, who rehabbed all offseason to recover from a torn ACL. Curry then missed nearly two months of the season after a minor surgery on the same knee, sat out four Big Ten games with a calf injury and now will miss the Gophers’ postseason with his injured foot.
“People don’t see them down in rehab and the pain that he goes through,” said Pitino, “so to work your way all the way back and to have those setbacks where you have to get a scope, then you’ve got some calf injuries and then you have the bizarre foot injury on a weird fall during practice. He’s just got to stay positive. It’s difficult for him. Not the end of the world.”
Curry was averaging 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds while playing with a brace on his surgically repaired knee. He worked his way into the starting lineup for five games but struggled to find a rhythm. His absence leaves a void in the rotation that senior Matz Stockman will be asked to fill. The transfer scored nine points with six rebounds and seven blocks against Purdue.
With Jordan Murphy graduating, the Gophers will need contributions from Curry next season to solidify the frontcourt.
“You’re not going to be yourself right away,” Pitino told Curry. “Next year is the year we get you back to being yourself. It’s a huge offseason for him.”
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