After a grueling stretch of nonconference games against Power 5 teams and a two-game tease of Big Ten action, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (11-2, 1-1) meandered past four non-conference opponents without putting forth their finest efforts.
They’ll need to bring their best Thursday night to beat the No. 22 Wisconsin Badgers in Madison, where they haven’t won since Jan. 15, 2009.
Minnesota’s two losses this year have come in their only two true road games: a 68-56 loss at Boston College in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and a 79-59 drubbing at Ohio State in the Big Ten opener. The Gophers got outrebounded in both contests while shooting 5 of 43 (12 percent) from 3-point range.
Senior Jordan Murphy said the loss at Ohio State was a good lesson for the Gophers’ freshmen and transfers, who need to learn what it takes to win on the road in the Big Ten.
“I think we got a little taste of it,” Murphy said. “Obviously, we have some guys who have been there before, but we have a lot of new guys and a lot of young guys who haven’t. So it was good to show them what the Big Ten on the road is about. No games are going to be easy.”
The Gophers were 2-9 in true road games last year, only beating Penn State away from home in conference play. One of the losses came at Wisconsin in overtime 73-63, the team’s eighth straight loss at the Kohl Center.
When Minnesota takes the floor Thursday, it will be one month and one day since their last road game, the defeat at Ohio State in which they trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half.
A drawn out schedule since then — interrupted by breaks for final exams and Christmas — has seemingly kept the Gophers off balance. After losing to the Buckeyes, they returned home for a bounce-back win over Nebraska on Dec. 5, then played Arkansas State, North Florida, North Carolina A&T and Mount St. Mary’s over the course of 22 days. In the final three games in that sequence, they trailed or held merely a single-digit lead during stretches of the second half. The combined record of their non-conference opponents in December was 14-31. In short, they were low-energy efforts in front of low-energy crowds.
Wisconsin (10-3, 2-0), on the other hand, is coming off a tough road test at Western Kentucky, who beat them 83-76 on Dec. 29.
“I’m not surprised that that happened,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “It could have happened to a lot of teams in the Big Ten, so that’s a difficult scheduling game. I don’t know why they played.”
While the Gophers weren’t tested during most of December, they were tested plenty in November, beating Utah at Williams Arena, Texas A&M and Washington in the Vancouver Showcase and Oklahoma State at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota could get a big lift from redshirt sophomore Eric Curry, who returned Sunday from a 21-month injury absence (knee). He was part of the 24-win Gophers team that made the NCAA Tournament two seasons ago.
“We hope to prove that we belong in the top four [of the conference],” Curry said. “We want to show we are one of the best teams in this league. We feel like we get overlooked a lot with our record being what it is, so we want to come out and make a statement that we actually are one of the best teams in this league.”
All things considered, Minnesota has compiled a strong resume through 13 games despite a taxing November travel schedule, numerous players returning from injuries, a large group of newcomers and a tragic situation involving the death of Dupree McBrayer’s mother.
The question is whether the gelling process has happened in time for the Gophers to make a statement against the Badgers.
“I don’t think we’re bad at anything, I really don’t,” said Pitino. “I don’t think we’re great at anything. But when you put five new players into a fold and then you have guys coming off of injuries, with Amir, with Eric, with Dupree obviously being out plus his mom’s situation, I think we’re going to get better. I don’t think we’re a finished product by any means.”