With 12 games to play, Gophers battling in Big Ten for NCAA bid

Richard Pitino won’t say it publicly, but the Gophers men’s basketball team is in the midst of a five-game stretch that may well define its season.

Minnesota (10-8, 4-4) heads to Ohio State Thursday night, looking for a season sweep of the Buckeyes. Ohio State came to Williams Arena last month poised to become the No. 1-ranked team in college basketball, only to have the Gophers beat them 84-71 behind a career-high 35 points from Marcus Carr.

Coming off a 64-56 loss at Rutgers Sunday, and in a stretch where Minnesota has three out of four on the road, the Gophers know they have to be ready.

“Definitely there’s a get back factor whenever you lose to a team. You definitely kind of want to pay them back and we’re going to their place, so we definitely expect them to come out and play with a lot of energy, a lot of will to win,” Carr said.

In Pitino’s words, the Gophers were “physically manhandled” in Sunday’s loss at Rutgers, getting out-rebounded 45-35 and giving up 20 offensive rebounds.

“Our front court has got to get meaner, nastier, scrappier,” Pitino said.

“We can’t give up 20 offensive rebounds and expect to win on the road. We just got to be tougher and more connected on both sides of the court in order to have a chance to win the game,” graduate transfer senior forward Alihan Demir said.

If the Gophers are going to get a road win at Ohio State, they don’t want to have to rely on another career night from Carr to get there. The Buckeyes enter Thursday’s game 1-4 so far in January after starting the season 9-0, before losing to the Gophers.

“They were going to be No. 1 in the country, they were in our building, it was a bit of a perfect storm from an energy standpoint for our guys,” Pitino said. “We played with great energy and emotion, and we played like a team who needed to win the game.”

After Ohio State, the Gophers host Michigan State, travel to Illinois and host Wisconsin to end a stretch of three out of five away from Williams Arena.

Life on the road in the Big Ten has been a rough one this season for the Gophers, just as it has been across the league. The Gophers are without a Big Ten road win this season, 0-6 in true road games and the rest of the conference is a combined 18-52. Only Michigan State (2-1) and Iowa (3-2) have wining road records in league play.

The Big Ten currently features 11 teams ranked in the top 50 of the NCAA’s NET Rankings, one of the main metrics used to determine NCAA Tournament teams. The Gophers are at 44, and they lost Sunday to No. 18 Rutgers. Their next four opponents are Ohio State (19), Michigan State (8), Illinois (32) and Wisconsin (22).

Pitino also monitors KenPom metrics to determine the state of his program as the Big Dance draws closer. The Gophers currently rank 17th in offensive efficiency (+16.24) and 84th in defensive efficiency (96.1).

It’s a race to lock up an NCAA Tournament at-large bid with 12 games to play before the Big Ten Tournament. After traveling to Ohio State Wednesday, four of the next six games for the Gophers are at Williams Arena.

The remaining road games after Ohio State include Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Indiana. National experts predicting NCAA Tournament brackets have as many as 10 Big Ten teams in the 68-team field.

“You better believe that our guys understand how important these games are. That picks up the level. You could say in our next 12 games, 10 of the 12 are playing for NCAA Tournament berths,” Pitino said. “It’s hard for the coaches, but fun for the players and the fans.”