Nearing sellout, Gophers hoping to reward fans vs. Wisconsin

MINNEAPOLIS -- The first tangible sign of respect returning to the Gophers men's basketball program came with their No. 24 national ranking last week, coach Richard Pitino said.

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino talks to guard Amir Coffey (5) during the second half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 14, 2017, in University Park, Pa. Penn State defeated Minnesota 52-50. Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS - The first tangible sign of respect returning to the Gophers men's basketball program came with their No. 24 national ranking last week, coach Richard Pitino said.

The next is coming Saturday for their matinee tipoff against Wisconsin. The game is nearing a sellout, something that hasn't happened at Williams Arena in nearly two years.

"I want them to be proud of that," Pitino said of his squad. "It's a testament to our guys that they've stayed level-headed through this whole thing. Obviously it wasn't very good in the offseason and we had to sit there and deal with it, which was fine. We deserved it. But we fought hard to get our fans back, and it's exciting to have that opportunity."

As of Friday evening, fewer than 400 tickets remained for the 14,625-capacity arena, and all of those were either single seats or seats with an obstructed view. The Gophers have averaged 9,091 fans this season and haven't had a sellout since facing Wisconsin in March 2015.

Coming off two consecutive road losses, the Gophers (15-4, 3-3 Big Ten) return home Saturday for a border battle that offers an opportunity to post their most significant home win since they upset No. 6 Maryland a year ago.


"That would go a long way toward putting some respect on our name," sophomore captain Jordan Murphy said of a potential win over Wisconsin.

To knock off the No. 17 Badgers (15-3, 4-1), the Gophers need drastic offensive improvement over their past two games, losses at Michigan State and Penn State in which the team scored just 47 and 50 points, respectively.

With a weeklong break since the loss to the Nittany Lions, Pitino emphasized offense.

"I think we needed a little time to get our offensive confidence back," Pitino said. "We really lost it in the Penn State game. Against Michigan State, I just thought they kicked our butt where against Penn State we really lost confidence offensively during that game. We've gone back to work and have looked good this week."

In search of an offensive spark, the Gophers may start senior Akeem Springs (8.6 points per game) over sophomore Dupree McBrayer (11.7) at guard for the first time this season.

"We've looked at it," Pitino admitted. "(Starting lineups) don't matter a whole lot to me, but it's something that we've looked at."

An offensive turnaround for the Gophers, though, likely has to start with point guard Nate Mason. The junior is averaging a team-high 13.9 points per game but shot just 3 for 13 against Penn State and 6 for 15 against Michigan State.

Pitino said he had a long conversation with Mason this week.


"The last couple games I've been doing a horrible job of leading," Mason said. "That's on me. I have to get better at that. It gets me out of my comfort zone where I have to be more vocal than I normally am. The team needs me to do that, and I'm willing to do it."

Pitino's Gophers upset the Badgers 81-68 in the coach's first game against Wisconsin in January 2014. But he has lost to Minnesota's biggest rival in each of the five meetings since.

But with an improved record and a returning fan base, the Gophers feel they have a chance to notch another upset in front of their biggest crowd of the season.

"We definitely have a better chance of winning than we did in previous years," Mason said. "It's going to be exciting. It's going to be a great atmosphere. It's going to be fun to see how our young guys react to all the fans and the big rivalry game. We're ready for it. We're excited."

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