MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For middle-of-the-pack programs like Minnesota, the Big Ten schedule is always daunting.
Well, the Gophers have rarely seen a stretch like the one they’re about to begin.
Four Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 20, including three in the top five, of the Associated Press poll. Those four teams also happen to be Minnesota’s next four opponents.
The Gophers play at No. 5 Michigan State on Saturday. They host No. 3 Ohio State next Thursday. They travel to No. 20 Iowa for a game on Jan. 19. They have No. 4 Wisconsin visiting on Jan. 22.
“I don’t think about the next four games. The only time I do is when people like yourselves bring it up to me, not that it’s wrong, or my wife looking at the schedule on the refrigerator going, ‘Oh, my goodness,'” coach Richard Pitino said Friday. “But 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, and certainly the next four games are very difficult. I don’t know who we play after that, but I’m sure it’s going to be difficult as well.”
Regardless of how the rankings shake out the next two weeks, this will be — no exaggeration — a once-in-a-generation challenge for the Gophers.
According to records in the Minnesota media guide, the last year the Gophers faced four straight ranked teams in conference play was all the way back in 1996: against No. 13 Illinois, No. 10 Iowa, No. 20 Penn State and No. 22 Purdue. Those foes weren’t playing at the level Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State have been this winter, though.
The last comparable four-game stretch to this one, then, was 1987. Then Minnesota played No. 4 Iowa, No. 11 Illinois, No. 7 Purdue and No. 2 Indiana consecutively.
Last season, the Gophers faced No. 12 Illinois, No. 5 Indiana and No. 5 Michigan in a row, but there was a game against Northwestern on each side of that bunch. In 2010, they played No. 11 Michigan State, No. 6 Purdue and No. 5 Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament before taking on No. 25 Xavier in the NCAA tournament, but matchups like that in March are more the norm.
Forward Oto Osenieks said the only opponent he was aware of beyond this weekend was Ohio State. Asked if he wanted to hear the whole list, Osenieks sounded like the main character from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”
Osenieks smiled and said, “I prefer not to.”
The conference is as strong as it’s been in at least 15 years, so the Gophers aren’t the only team that must do this. Michigan plays at Iowa on Feb. 8 and at Ohio State on Feb. 11 before hosting Wisconsin on Feb. 16 and Michigan State on Feb. 23.
Illinois comes close over a five-game stretch: a home date with Michigan State on Jan. 18, a trip to Ohio State on Jan. 23, and a visit from Iowa on Feb. 1 and Wisconsin on Feb. 4. There’s a road game against Indiana in there on Jan. 26.
The goal for the Gophers, then, is to not let themselves be beaten mentally before they even start these games. The Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich., gives the Spartans one of the best home-court advantages in the country.
“Noise is just noise to us. We’re not going to really let that get to our heads. We’re just going to go out there and compete and do everything we can,” said forward Joey King. He added: “Don’t make it more than it is.”
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