Rematch with Sparty
MINNEAPOLIS—In the days following an overtime loss to Michigan State, optimism around Minnesota's men's basketball had eroded.
After losing the Big Ten opener, the Gophers' 12-1 nonconference record seemed less impressive, especially to a fan base still smarting from last season's 23-loss campaign.
"When we lost to Michigan State, everybody — and I get it — but everybody is going, 'Here we go again,' " coach Richard Pitino said.
Expected to regress as the conference season unfolded, the Gophers (15-2, 3-1) instead won their next three games to become a genuine NCAA tournament contender. Those three wins, including a road victory at No. 15 Purdue, earned the Gophers their first Top 25 ranking in nearly four years.
With a rematch against the Spartans (11-6, 3-1) Wednesday night in East Lansing, Mich., the 75-74 loss at Williams Arena on Dec. 27 is still fresh in the minds of Minnesota's players.
"It hurt, but we learned a lot," said junior captain Nate Mason, whose potential game-winner that night bounced off the rim. "We learned what we need to fix, and I felt like we came (together) the next three games and fixed it."
With the rematch on the horizon, the Gophers re-examined their late collapse against the Spartans, wincing while watching a 15-point lead disintegrate and two potential game-winners rim out.
"It's painful," Pitino said.
The Spartans were undermanned in the first meeting, without star freshman Miles Bridges, who may be the only Big Ten rookie better than Amir Coffey, the Gophers swingman averaging 12.8 points per game.
Bridges is back from the ankle injury that left him watching from the sideline in Dinkytown and brings a team-best 14.3-point average to the rematch.
"Miles Bridges being back gives them a different dimension than last time we played," Pitino said.
The Spartans beat the Gophers behind a bullying performance from center Nick Ward, a 250-pound freshman who took advantage of Minnesota's bench players while starting center Reggie Lynch watched helplessly from the bench because of foul trouble. Ward scored 22 points.
"That wasn't my best game, as most people who watched the game saw," Lynch said. "I know that Nick Ward is a very good player. ... But me staying on the court will probably take care of that."
Pitino said he has used pressure-packed drills to try to teach his team poise. But until the waning moments against Michigan State, he had little idea exactly how his young team would respond.
"You try to teach it, but it's almost like in golf — you've just got to make a tough putt and then the confidence grows," Pitino said.
He sensed his players' confidence, and the season's future, changing days after that loss. The Gophers were down seven points at Purdue but dominated the final few minutes and won 91-82 in overtime.
"They had to break through, and they did it amongst themselves," Pitino said. "We're saying the same things, but they're starting to believe it internally. That internal confidence is different. It's apparent, where last year it may not have been. We lost a lot of close games in the last two years, but these guys are believing in themselves when they need to perform."
With a renewed belief and confidence, the Gophers said payback is now on the line.
"There's a revenge factor," Mason said. "We're not satisfied just being ranked No. 24."