Road games will determine Gophers’ NCAA Tournament fate

Minnesota is 1-6 in true road games this season.

Center Daniel Oturu drives the ball through a defender at Williams Arena on Sunday, Jan. 26. The Gophers lost to the Michigan State Spartans 70-52.

Nur B. Adam

Center Daniel Oturu drives the ball through a defender at Williams Arena on Sunday, Jan. 26. The Gophers lost to the Michigan State Spartans 70-52.

Nick Jungheim

In college basketball, earning a victory in another team’s arena is never easy. It’s a fact that Gophers head coach Richard Pitino is well aware of. His teams have gone 2-9 in true road games each of the past two seasons.

Minnesota’s schedule in 2019-20 has presented them with an even more challenging slate featuring two true road games back-to-back in November before a gauntlet in the Big Ten. As a result, the Gophers began the year 0-6 in road games before breaking through with a 62-59 victory at Ohio State last week, a victory Pitino hopes propels the team down the stretch.

“We were down 11 in the second half,” Pitino said. “We weren’t really playing great but we just found a way to fight through and defend when we needed to. I hope it inspires great confidence, but every game is so different.”

Not only was the victory over Ohio State the first road win of the season for Minnesota, it was also the Gophers’ first victory in Columbus, Ohio since 2005. After a number of narrow defeats, including a double overtime loss at Purdue, players said it was a relief to finally get a win away from The Barn.

“That was a much-needed win, a big win for us,” sophomore Gabe Kalscheur said.  “We haven’t won a road game all year besides that one. That was a good one just to get off our backs and hopefully there’s more to come.”

This season, road victories have been rare not just for Minnesota, but for the rest of the Big Ten as well. Through Jan. 28, road teams are a combined 16-49 in conference games.

“It’s really hard to win on the road and we learned that early on,” senior Michael Hurt said. “Even last year we didn’t have a whole lot of success on the road. … When it comes to Big Ten play, the crowds are bigger and it’s hard to win on the road.”

One explanation for the struggles of road teams is increased parity in men’s college basketball. Upsets seem to occur on a nightly basis and there have been a record seven teams ranked AP No. 1 at some point already this season. With teams so evenly matched, home court can serve as even more of an advantage than usual.

No conference has embodied this competitiveness better than the Big Ten. In his latest NCAA Tournament projections, Joe Lunardi of ESPN has 12 Big Ten teams, including Minnesota, making the field of 68 teams.

“In this league, there’s great talent on each team,” Kalscheur said. “You are going to get each team’s best shot every single game.”

At the halfway point of the Big Ten season, the Gophers have a 5-5 conference record, going 1-4 on the road but 4-1 at home, the only defeat at the hands of No. 14 Michigan State last Sunday.

The Gophers have reason for optimism with the schedule moving forward. For one, road teams have show improvement lately, going 8-5 last week after starting conference play 7-42. Also, one of Minnesota’s remaining road games is against Northwestern, which, at 4-7, is the only Big Ten team more than one game below .500 at home this season.

However, there are still plenty of challenges ahead for Minnesota. There are four opponents on the Gophers’ schedule currently ranked in the AP Top-25. Minnesota will play two of those teams on the road, beginning with a trip to take on No. 19 Illinois, who have not yet lost a Big Ten home game on Thursday, Jan. 30. 

“I think you can sit here and say … five more wins, you’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Pitino said. “I don’t want that. I want to win every game.”