Facing tough four-game stretch, Gophers avoid looking ahead
MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino has programmed his players to take things one game at a time — so much so that they insist they don’t even know which opponents are on the horizon.
"I only know these Michigan State and Ohio State games next," junior Oto Osenieks said Friday. "We don’t look further than that. We look one game at a time. That’s about it."
Yet even though Minnesota remains focused on the next task at hand — a road game Saturday at No. 5 Michigan State — there’s no denying the upcoming portion of the Gophers’ schedule is perhaps as daunting of a challenge as a Big Ten team can get put through.
Following Saturday’s tough test in East Lansing, Mich., Minnesota will host No. 3 Ohio State (although that ranking could change by then after the Buckeyes’ recent loss to MSU) before a game at No. 20 Iowa and then back home to host the fourth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. That means in the next four games, the Gophers will face three teams currently in the top 5 in the polls and another in the top 20.
"It’s definitely a test and an opportunity, but we’re really just looking at Michigan State," sophomore Joey King said of the upcoming slate of games. "That’s going to be really important for us to go in there and not let any of our future games have really any room in our heads. We just want to go in there focused on Michigan State and try and come out with a win."
It’s Pitino’s first time through the wringer that is the Big Ten Conference after taking over the Gophers program this past offseason following one year at Florida International. His team dropped its first conference game by three points in a home loss to Michigan before bouncing back to beat Purdue at home and Penn State on the road.
Yet Minnesota hasn’t been tested like it will be over the next 12 days. The Gophers did face some tough competition during the Maui Invitational, including a game against then-No. 8 Syracuse. Those three games Minnesota played in a three-day stretch in Maui, though, won’t compare to what’s ahead in arguably one of the best conferences in college basketball.
"I can’t dictate the schedule," Pitino said. "I don’t think about the next four games. The only time I do is when (the media) bring it up to me — not that it’s wrong — or my wife, who’s looking on the schedule on the refrigerator, going, ‘Oh my goodness.’ You don’t think like that. You just think about the next opponent and you just try to take it one game at a time."
The Michigan State team that Minnesota will face Saturday has lost just once, falling by 14 at home to North Carolina. That game seemed to be an aberration as the Spartans have rarely lost at the Breslin Center under head coach Tom Izzo. Earlier this week, MSU eked out a win against Ohio State as the Buckeyes rallied from a big second-half deficit to send the game to overtime.
Visiting teams have had moderate success in East Lansing, but it’s certainly hard to come by. Minnesota goes into Saturday’s game riding a wave of confidence following its road win at Penn State on Wednesday. This MSU squad, however, is a much more talented team than the Nittany Lions club the Gophers beat by three points.
The Spartans are led by guards Gary Harris (who leads MSU in scoring with a 17.8 points per game average) and Keith Appling, as well as big men Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. Minnesota’s frontcourt and backcourt will both be tested by Michigan State’s battle-tested lineup.
Then again, facing a stacked Spartans roster won’t be unlike what the Gophers will experience next Thursday when Ohio State comes to town, or when Minnesota faces an upstart Iowa team and Bo Ryan’s Badgers after that.
Top to bottom, the Big Ten is a competitive league. The Gophers will find out firsthand just how competitive during these next four games.
"It’s a great league, a very stable league. Great programs year in and year out," Pitino said. "I don’t know who’s ranked what, but you know Michigan State’s always going to be good. You know Wisconsin’s always going to be good. Iowa’s getting so much better. They’re a really talented team and a well-coached team. . . .
"It’s one of the best basketball conferences in all of college basketball, if not the best, just because of the stability of all the basketball programs and the coaching is tremendous."
After Osenieks offered up that he wasn’t sure who his team played after Michigan State and Ohio State, he was asked if he wanted to know the rest of the upcoming four-game stretch. True to his coach’s philosophy, Osenieks declined.
"I’d prefer not to," he said. "I’m just going to focus on the next game."
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