MINNEAPOLIS - Richard Pitino remembers stopping into a Twin Cities Starbucks store on a regular basis two seasons ago and facing Gopher basketball fans in the midst of a 15-17 season.
They weren’t fun days, and they seemed like a distant memory after Minnesota went 22-14 last year. Pitino got to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament last year, and got his first NCAA Tournament win with the Gophers.
The Gophers are back home Thursday night to face Central Michigan, looking to end a three-game losing streak that featured two true road games and a neutral site game in the span of six days. Minnesota is 1-3 after losses to Oklahoma at the Sanford Pentagon in South Dakota, at Butler in the Gavitt Games and at Utah.
Pitino’s latest venture with the Gopher fan base happened Wednesday at a metro grocery store.
“I was just at the grocery store and a guy came up to me, ‘Tough season coach.’ I looked at him and was like it’s a little too early for that. A little too early for that one,” Pitino said. “I didn’t say that, I was about that close to snapping on him and I just said thank you and I kept walking.”
It’s only going to get worse if they don’t find a way to win some games, and soon. The Gophers host Central Michigan (4-0) Thursday night at Williams Arena, the first of four straight home games.
The stretch after Central Michigan includes North Dakota, DePaul and Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Blue Demons are 5-0, and won at Iowa 93-78 last week.
The Gophers know they’re close to figuring some things out. They had a 51-43 lead on Oklahoma with 12:06 in regulation in South Dakota before losing 71-62. Butler pulled away from the Gophers in the last six minutes to get a 64-56 win over Minnesota. The Gophers went down 16-0 out of the opening tip at Utah and trailed by as little as one point in the second half before losing 73-69.
They can forget about their struggles with a win Thursday night.
“We’ve got to stay positive, we can’t go blaming anybody. Each individual has to get better each and every day,” said guard Payton Willis, who is third on the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game. “We just got to go 1-0 the next game, that’s what we tell the guys, we’ve just got to go 1-0 each game.”
They’re taking a page from PJ Fleck’s book with the Gopher football team there.
Gabe Kalscheur, by his standards, is off to a slow start offensively. He’s averaging 9.5 points per game and shooting 10-of-31 from the perimeter. He’s 7-of-23 from three-point range in Minnesota’s last three losses, but he’s a shooter and he won’t let that slow him down.
“Just stay confident. Confidence is the big key, and just staying positive. We can’t get down on each other,” Kalscheur said.
The most consistent player for the Gophers so far has been sophomore center Daniel Oturu. He’s averaging 19 points and nearly 12 rebounds per game this season, and has added a new dimension since last year. He’s now added the three-point shot to his game, and tries it just enough to keep opponents honest.
The next two weeks are a pivotal stretch for the Gophers, with four straight home games before opening the December portion of the Big Ten schedule at Iowa on Dec. 9.
“These are important games right here, so we’ve just got to stick with it. Stick with the process, and just win each and every game that we have left at home,” Kalscheur said.
“It doesn’t get easier for us. Central Michigan is not going to be an easy game, this is not some walk in the park. But you do this with January and February in mind,” Pitino said.