Pitino tries to flip script on team’s Feburary woes

Minnesota went 15-29 in February in six years under Tubby Smith.

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins looks to pass against Iowa on Feb. 3, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Amanda Snyder, Daily File Photo

Minnesota guard Austin Hollins looks to pass against Iowa on Feb. 3, 2013, at Williams Arena.

Jace Frederick

It took one game this month for Gophers head coach Richard Pitino to notice the alarming trend fans have stewed over for the past few seasons: Come February, the Gophers tense up, and the season goes awry.

On Sunday, the Gophers fell 55-54 at Williams Arena to Northwestern — their second straight loss to a team ranked below them in the conference standings.

It wasn’t the loss that worried Pitino, though.

“They’re a good program. They’re a good team. They’re doing a lot of really good things in the league,” he said.

What did worry him was his team’s demeanor during the game.

Pitino said it was the first time in his tenure he felt his team didn’t enjoy being on the court.

“I could sense in that game, they were [thinking], ‘Oh God, we can’t lose to Northwestern at home,’” he said.

It looked like the start to a familiar trend Gophers fans have witnessed seemingly countless times in the past.

They’d watched Minnesota get off to inspired season starts only to spiral violently toward a meager finish.

In six seasons under former head coach Tubby Smith, the team went 15-29 in February — 5-17 over the last three seasons of the era.

Saturday’s result brought back visions of those midseason plummets to the minds of many — including the
players.

“I sense that we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves about making the tournament,” Pitino said. “I sense the, ‘Here we go again. The Gophers are going to lose again in February.’ I think that’s getting to them again a little bit.”

So on Sunday, a day after the Northwestern loss, Pitino said he held a meeting that lasted about 25 minutes.

Pitino asked his players about their best memory from a year ago, and the answer had nothing to do with that much-celebrated basketball tournament in March.

It wasn’t qualifying for the “Big Dance.”

It wasn’t the NCAA tournament win over UCLA.

It was the upset over No. 1 Indiana, which led to a Williams Arena court-storming — a win that occurred in February.

“And I said, ‘So stop worrying about making the NCAA tournament. … Let’s just enjoy this journey and stop worrying about the destination.’”

Pitino said he told his players, “If you’re going to put all this pressure on yourselves, we’re not going to enjoy this next month.”

While he never likes to lose, Pitino said, the Northwestern loss did bring an apparent “fear of failure” to light.

“A lot of those guys, they’ve gone through some tough times,” Pitino said. “So we’ve got to make sure they just focus and enjoy the here and now.”

His message seems to have gotten through.

“We were focusing too much on what was ahead, instead of focusing on what we have right now,” senior guard Austin Hollins said. “It’s easy to do that at times, especially with the media and everybody talking about [the] NCAA tournament. … So at times, you can get carried away and think about that stuff, but you just have to focus on what you have right in front of you and take it one day at a time.”

Hollins, who’s been a part of the recent collapses and has lived through the painful February losses, said this year, this team is different.

“When we lose, the guys are eager to get back on the court and eager to get a win,” Hollins said. “I don’t think it’s like past years. We’re going to keep working at practice every day to get better and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Whether this team is different, and whether Sunday’s team meeting truly had an impact, will play out on the court this month.

Game 2 of the February slate is set for Wednesday, when the Gophers visit Purdue eager to prove that this time around, it’s truly different.