Big opportunity awaits Gophers against Purdue in odd Thursday afternoon game

Gophers center Liam Robbins scored 27 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and had 5 blocks in Minnesota's 77-60 win over Ohio State Sunday night at Williams Arena. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

Richard Pitino has said it consistently since before the start of the college basketball season: Nothing about this year is normal.

We try to normalize it, but Pitino and the Gophers are taking things day by day as they try to get through the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He described his daily drive from Edina to campus like going through a ghost town. His wife texted on a recent weekday morning, there was no traffic to speak of as she dropped off the family dog.

He got out of a practice this week and saw that Duke was playing Notre Dame on a weekday afternoon.

We’re still in weird times, and the latest example of that will come Thursday as Minnesota hosts Purdue. While a midweek game is normal, a 4 p.m. tipoff time is not. That’s normally a start time for a conference tournament, NCAA Tournament or weekend game for a sold out arena.

It doesn’t bother Pitino.

"When the game time switched I was like great, why not? What does it matter? Nobody is really going to work right now, everybody is working from home," Pitino said Wednesday. "I’d be bothered by it if we had fans, but we’re not going to have fans. It’s way more of a unique year than I think anybody understands."

The Gophers have a 12-1 record at Williams Arena this season, and they put that to the test Thursday night against the Boilermakers. The two teams met two weeks ago, and Minnesota led a big opportunity for a road win slip away.

Leading by 14 early and 35-30 at the half, Purdue won the second half 51-27 and manhandled the Gophers in an 81-loss. It was part of a three-game losing streak as the Gophers are now 0-6 on the road this season. They get a chance for payback on Thursday.

"The big thing was we played very good basketball for 20 minutes. We’ve got to play that way for 40 minutes, just don’t let them wear us down. Just embrace that toughness that comes with this league, and that Purdue embraces," forward Eric Curry said.

The biggest numbers from that loss? The Gophers were out-rebounded 44-27, allowed 26 points in the paint, 21 second chance points and 14 points off 11 turnovers.

"We gave away 30-plus points on offensive rebounds and turnovers. You cut down on those, I think it’s a much different game," Pitino said. "We’ve got to do a better job of being ready for that this time around."

The Gophers are at ninth in the Big Ten at 5-7, and a quality win over Purdue would boost their NCAA Tournament resume. Curry says there is no panic after Minnesota snapped a three-game skid Monday night after beating Nebraska. His freshman year, the Gophers started 0-5 in the Big Ten before going on a February run and going dancing.

A win Thursday could do a lot for their confidence.

"It can be the start of something special. It can be one of those types of turnaround seasons for us. Just spark something up going into tournament time,’ Curry said.

The Gophers are 12-7 overall, and there’s not a single NCAA Tournament projection that has them out of the Big Dance. But there’s still work to do, with home games left against Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern and Rutgers. They have road games left at Maryland, Indiana, Penn State and maybe Nebraska.

The consensus is they need to get to 17 wins to get to the Big Ten Tournament, switched this year from Chicago to Indianapolis due to COVID-19, without sweating an NCAA bid. It’s time to put the foot on the gas.

"This is a crucial time and they call it the dog days of the season, this January-February period. I think we’ve been handling it well. We obviously have been going through some adversity, but it’s all about how you bounce back," Jamal Mashburn Jr. said.