MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota has a Top 25 team on the schedule for the second straight time. This opponent will likely finish the game with five players on the court.
Whatever the case, though, the 12th-ranked Gophers are facing another intriguing and invaluable nonconference challenge. They’ll host No. 10 Miami on Wednesday night as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“I can’t remember playing such a big game so early in this building,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said.
Having come dangerously close to the embarrassment of losing to a then-No. 25 Alabama team that was down to three players because of a mass ejection, a foul out and an ankle injury, the Gophers (7-0) were more than happy to be home at cozy Williams Arena with the Hurricanes (5-0) coming to campus.
“It’ll be a good test for us, to see where our young guys and our older guys are at this part of the year,” junior power forward Jordan Murphy said. “I think it’s going to be exciting, just for us and for our fans.”
The Gophers have already won at Providence and will play next month at Arkansas, two more quality foes to put on their resume come March. They didn’t face any Associated Press Top 25 teams before Big Ten play in either of the last two seasons.
The last time the program was up against more than one ranked opponent during nonconference play was five years ago in then-coach Tubby Smith’s final season, when the Gophers lost to No. 5 Duke and beat No. 19 Memphis at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The previous instance of multiple ranked foes on the pre-conference portion of the schedule was 10 years before that under coach Dan Monson, when the Gophers beat No. 17 Georgia, lost at No. 5 Oregon and lost to No. 25 Texas Tech.
As one of the 28 unbeaten NCAA Division I teams remaining and coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance under Pitino, the Gophers have worked their way into the national conversation about the sport’s best teams. They’re averaging 90.7 points per game with a collective skill set in the starting lineup that the program hasn’t had for 20 years.
For the last few days, however, they’ve been in focus as the team that got to play 5-on-3 for one-quarter of the game and still only won by five points
“Criticism of what we did, to me, is really fake outrage so that doesn’t bother me,” Pitino said Tuesday before practice.
With 40 points from freshman Collin Sexton, many of them on high-degree-of-difficulty jump shots, the Crimson Tide came within three points down the stretch before falling 89-84 in New York on Saturday. The Barclays Center environment, according to the Gophers, was edgy and a factor in the on-court fracas that led to every player on the Alabama bench being tossed out for crossing the sideline onto the court.
Pitino was more interested in his team’s performance in the first 30 minutes of the game. The Gophers led 41-29 at halftime and by 14 points with about 10 minutes to go before entering the unprecedented scenario.
“I know it’s a cute story. It is what it is, but I’m very happy with the preparation and everything that went into that game to beat a Top 25 team,” Pitino said.
Murphy had much to do with that, as usual. He recently received his third consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week award, the first such honoree since Ohio State’s Evan Turner in 2009.
“You saw glimpses of it last year,” sophomore small forward Amir Coffey said.
Murphy has a double-double in all seven games, matching Duke’s Marvin Bagley III for the NCAA Division I lead. He’s averaging 22.0 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, ranking 22nd and fifth in the nation in those respective categories.
“There’s not many guys that can guard him that I’ve seen,” Coffey said.
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