Two weeks ago, Richard Pitino did something different in one of his team meetings with the Gophers. Instead of just going over X’s and O’s, he played Dr. Phil and had his players imagine what it would be like if they played well not just for stretches, not just for a half, but for an entire game.
It was hard to picture at the time. One could argue Minnesota hadn’t played to its potential for a full game yet in Big Ten play, not until ending a four-game losing streak Saturday with an 84-63 blowout victory over Indiana in front of an announced 11,639 at Williams Arena.
“We were efficient with what we were trying to do,” Pitino said. “I thought defensively we were terrific. They’re a talented team. So it’s a big win for our guys. I thought we responded extremely well from a devastating loss at Nebraska. We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
Pitino tapped into the psyche of his players again this week, wanting them to play angry after an emotional 62-61 loss Wednesday at Nebraska, a game decided by what they felt was a questionable foul call.
Pressured to stay in NCAA tournament contention, the Gophers (17-9, 7-8) responded with their most dominant performance of the season.
Jordan Murphy had 17 of his 23 points in the first half, to go with 11 rebounds. Gabe Kalscheur had 20 points on 6-for-8 shooting from three-point range, and the Gophers made a season-high 12 threes in the game.
“No one wants to lose,” Kalscheur said. “We hate losing. It’s tough when we’re losing like that, but to get this win we’re going to turn it around.”
The Gophers shot 51.7 percent in the second half, including 7-for-14 from three-point range. They had 19 assists on 28 field goals. Murphy’s dominance inside was complemented by Kalscheur, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer combining for 48 points on 11-for-19 shooting on three-pointers.
Entering Saturday, Minnesota was on the NCAA tournament bubble with projected seeds ranging from No. 9 to No. 11. An at-large bid is within reach, though, in the last five regular-season games, especially with signature win opportunities at home vs. Michigan on Thursday and Purdue on March 5, and on the road vs. Maryland on March 8.
Men’s basketball: NCAA NET rankings
This ranking system is one of the tools the NCAA selection committee uses in choosing the tournament field.
The No. 6 Wolverines needed a buzzer-beater by Charles Matthews to escape Minnesota 59-57 on Jan. 22. They’ve shown vulnerability since then, with a loss at Penn State.
The U’s home finale and rematch vs. Big Ten title contender Purdue is sandwiched between back-to-back winnable road games at Rutgers on Feb. 24 and at Northwestern on Feb. 28. If Pitino’s team can at least win three of the next four games, the pressure will be off for the Gophers needing to win the regular-season finale at Maryland to finish with a .500 record in league play.
League record, though, means little. Quadrant 1 wins are the best you can get to boost your NCAA tourney résumé. That’s why the Gophers felt like they were robbed of one Wednesday at Nebraska.
“I was really upset after that game — the most upset I’ve been,” Pitino said. “There’s nothing anybody could say to me that’s going to change that game. We lost. We’re not going to change the record or appeal anything. There’s only one thing you can do is play angry.”
The Gophers looked like a team trying to make a statement early Saturday by jumping out to a 25-12 lead in the first half and 42-30 at halftime.
They continued to overwhelm the Hoosiers (13-12, 4-10) from inside and out in the second half.
Even shorthanded without point guard Isaiah Washington (tailbone injury), Minnesota’s backcourt controlled the pace and played stifling defense. Romeo Langford, who led Indiana with a 17.5 scoring average coming into Saturday, was held to 10 points.
Having lost 10 of the past 11 games, Indiana coach Archie Miller sees a team lacking the fight to earn an NCAA tournament bid, opposite of what the Gophers displayed Saturday.
“I thought they played as well as we’ve seen them play recently,” Miller said. “We didn’t play with the sense of urgency, the toughness, the fight that you need on the road.”