There have been myriad off-the-court challenges in an unorthodox season of college basketball being played through a pandemic. But for Minnesota, especially, the tests on the court have been just as taxing.
The Gophers are closing in on the end of a historically difficult stretch. For the first time in program history, Minnesota is set to face seven consecutive ranked teams when they meet No. 7 Michigan Saturday at Williams Arena. Along the way, they’ve faced four top-15 opponents on the road with few or no fans in the stands. One might think the dearth of fans in road gyms would level the playing field, yet the Gophers remain a perfect 10-0 (3-0) at The Barn and a winless 0-4 away from home with four lopsided defeats by an average of 20 points.
It has some on the team grappling to explain why the home-road splits have remained so drastic without opposing bands and student sections riling up packed gymnasiums. Like head coach Richard Pitino, others refuse to use the road as an excuse in a fan-less season.
“They all feel like neutral site games,” Pitino said before the team’s 15-point loss at Iowa. “I understand talking about it, but there is no home court. There’s legitimately 15 people there.
“I felt weird versus Illinois. That was our first time on the road, the testing, all that stuff. There’s some uniqueness for sure. Michigan, we were isolated, we weren’t able to eat as a team, meet as a team, but what does that have to do with defending? It has nothing to do with that. Fortunately, there were no fans in the building because 20 points might have been 30 the way I look at it. I think it’s all an excuse.”
Setting aside seven non-conference home wins that included a victory against A-10 contender St. Louis, the Gophers have still logged three impressive conference wins at The Barn, beating fourth-ranked Iowa in overtime, No. 17 Michigan State 81-56 and No. 25 Ohio State 77-60. In their three conference home games, they’ve shot a robust 45/36/80 slash line while outrebounding their opponents 41-38, on average, and committing just 7.3 turnovers per game.
“It’s just home court,” said junior guard Marcus Carr. “We practice here, play here, get used to it. Don’t have to travel. I think everybody’s just most comfortable at home, so I feel that’s a natural thing.”
By contrast, the Gophers have looked thoroughly uncomfortable on the road. But is it the environment, or just the opponent? Minnesota’s scheduling gauntlet has pitted them against four teams that were ranked in the top 15 nationally at the time of the game, all of whom remain in the top 15 per the latest AP poll: Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. Those four clubs presently have a combined record of 41-9 and 13-2 in conference home games.
Remember the Gophers’ home shooting splits (45/36/80)? On the road, they sink to 32/26/72. Their plus-three rebounding advantage becomes a minus-seven deficit (40-33 per game), and they commit an average of four additional turnovers per contest.
Minnesota has also faced some of the nation’s best big men in Illinois’s Kofi Cockburn, Iowa’s Luka Garza, and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson. Toss in Wisconsin’s Micah Potter, and the four opposing centers have combined to shoot 45-of-65 and scored 28 points per game against the Gophers.
“Clearly, in any of our losses, we have not played well at all, and it’s been a consistent theme,” Pitino said. “Guys have been pushing us around. Obviously points in the paint a consistent theme as well.”
There is one variable that isn’t widely discussed: The actual basketballs.
More attention has been given recently to the NCAA’s lack of a standardized basketball. Schools can choose their ball based on apparel deals, and those basketballs can have a half-inch variance in circumference (29.5-30 inches) and a two-ounce variance in weight (20-22 oz.). The 14 Big Ten schools reportedly use four different basketball brands, and some of their most successful programs have taken advantage of the rule. Up until they signed a Nike agreement in 2016, Michigan used an obscure basketball called “The Rock,” known for its hard exterior, while Wisconsin stands alone as the only current user of Wilson balls in the conference. The Badgers previously were well-known for using the rare Sterling basketball under Bo Ryan.
The Gophers use the common Nike basketballs, but even same-branded balls can feel different because of the permitted weight variance.
“In Illinois, it’s still a Nike ball,” said center Liam Robbins, “but I thought the ball felt heavy. It just felt a little different than the one we use here. We use a Nike ball as well, but it was different grip, just felt a little different.
“Sometimes, it’s just a little bit of a difference. It can throw you off originally, but you can’t let that get in your head. It’s not that big of a deal, but it is something that I think people don’t realize does come into play sometimes.”
Minutiae, like the grip of a basketball, may seem like small potatoes compared to a rowdy road crowd. Still, in a fan-less environment, the change in basketball could partially explain why home-court advantage remains.
“I guess you’re used to driving your own car, and you switch to a rental car. That’s kind of how it is,” said Carr. “It’s not like you can’t drive, but it’s not the usual feel. At the end of the day, it’s still a basketball.”
No team, however, is struggling on the road like Minnesota. The Gophers have the worst road record in the Big Ten. Only Nebraska and Penn State — both with zero conference wins — are also winless on the road at 0-2. Collectively, home teams are 28-16 in conference games for a .636 winning percentage. That’s about 5% lower than the 2019-20 league average when fans were in the stands, and home teams held a .681 winning percentage. Specifically, Minnesota went 6-4 at home and 2-8 on the road in 2019-20.
About a third of the way through the conference season, it would appear home-court advantage in the pandemic is reduced but not eliminated. In the Gophers’ case, though, it seems to hold a great deal of weight. Perhaps a stretch of games against less formidable opponents will provide a clearer picture.
“I think it’s just every team we’ve played on the road is in the top 15, just really good teams, and we’ve struggled a little bit,” said Robbins. “Especially in the Big Ten, if you have like one little two-minute, three-minute stretch, it can just blow the game wide open, and it’s really hard to recover from that. I don’t necessarily think it’s a road thing.”