Donnelly: Gophers pass final tune-up exam before entering Big Ten play
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MINNEAPOLIS - Sometimes, a cupcake is not a cupcake. The Gophers men's basketball team found that out in its last game, when Nebraska-Omaha gave the hometown five and the Williams Arena crowd all the trouble they could handle before finally succumbing.
Then again, sometimes a cupcake arrives as soft and gooey and mushy in the middle as advertised. That's pretty much been the case throughout much of the Gophers' pre-Big Ten schedule, and it was again Saturday night when Minnesota cruised through its final nonconference test with a 65-44 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
The outcome was never in doubt, playing out similar to the Gophers' wins over Lehigh, Montana, Coastal Carolina, Wofford, New Orleans and South Dakota State in the past seven weeks. Aside from a win at Richmond, the trip to Maui and home games against Florida State and (surprisingly) Nebraska-Omaha, the Gophers were seemingly not tested much by the nonconference schedule. On Saturday, Minnesota took an 11-point lead at the break, started the second half on a 15-1 and put it on cruise control the rest of the way.
But head coach Richard Pitino lauded his team afterwards for maintaining the concentration necessary to avoid stumbling against a lesser foe, especially with Michigan looming on the schedule on Jan. 2.
"This was a bit of a trap game looking ahead to the Big Ten and our guys did not do that, so I thought it was a testament to them," Pitino said. "It's tough sometimes to get up for every single opponent. I think our guys, if you look back over the last 13 games, they didn't lay an egg mentally, which you see a lot in college basketball."
That edge comes from the head coach as much as the players. Senior guard Austin Hollins (13 points, eight rebounds on Saturday) spoke to the mentality that Pitino has instilled in his 11-2 team as they've chugged through the less glamorous section of their schedule.
"He tells us to look at the bigger picture. It's (about) more than just winning the game. It's getting better as a team," Hollins said. "Winning isn't enough. The score is 0-0 on each possession and we go out there and try to get a stop. That's our main thing - just staying focused for 40 minutes and trying to go out there and play like it's our last game."
Of course, if it were their last game, most players would prefer to see the likes of Kentucky or Kansas or Michigan State on the other sideline, but they've focused on playing the cards they were dealt and making the best of it.
"I always want to play the best," junior guard Andre Hollins (18 points) said. "I've played my best when I've played against some of the better players. I would like to play them, but still, I have to come out every day like Texas (A&M) Corpus Christi is Michigan State or Kentucky. We need to play like they're them. That's just the mentality."
He added that maintaining that focus often is a stumbling block, even for good teams that show they've got the ability to handle the toughest opponents on their schedule.
"That's one of the toughest things to do. You see North Carolina, they come out and beat Michigan State, they beat Louisville and they lose to Belmont and UAB. It's just a mentality.
"It's easy to get up for the big games," said Andre Hollins. "It's hard to get up for the Texas (A&M) Corpus Christies and the lower division (teams). That makes you better. I think that makes you more mentally tough."
The time has come to see how much that mental toughness has taken root in this young team. Of the main rotation players, only Andre and Austin Hollins have played key roles on a Big Ten team. Oto Osenieks, Elliott Eliason and Mo Walker have been mostly bit players , while DeAndre Mathieu, Malik Smith and Joey King have yet to set foot on the court in Big Ten play.
"Conference play, it's just a different mindset," Austin Hollins said. "You can't really explain. When you get out there, the physicality level is different, the competition is different, night in and night out, any team can beat any team. It doesn't matter what they did in nonconference play. It's a tough schedule and it's a grind."
In recent years, the Gophers have been living proof that it doesn't matter what you do in nonconference play once the Big Ten schedule kicks in. In the past three seasons, Minnesota has a composite record of 35-3 in non-Big Ten play, yet none of those teams posted a .500 record in conference games.
Austin Hollins said he's been trying to talk to his young teammates about what to expect when the ball goes up on Jan. 2, but while it's hard to put it into words, he's confident his guys will answer the bell.
"You've just got to tell them that it's a new season. Nothing can really prepare you for it until you've actually played in a Big Ten game," he said. "I have no doubt in my mind that they'll be ready to play. We've played tough competition. We played Syracuse out in Maui and I think that was our toughest competition in the nonconference and we held our own without Mo. So I think we've gotten a lot better since then as a team and I think we'll be ready to play."
Pitino has said numerous times that the nonconference schedule - which he inherited from Tubby Smith - will get tougher as the program grows, but even though some of lesser-heralded teams might not have provided as much resistance as a Top-25 squad, the head coach still thinks the first 13 games provided him and his staff plenty of opportunities to demonstrate to the players how the coaches want them to play.
"We'll talk about the Syracuse game. I thought we played really, really well. We were short-handed in the front court and they're one of the biggest teams in the country," Pitino said. "I thought we had a great win at Richmond - to finish on a 19-0 run, hold them without a basket for 7-8 minutes, is something we'll reference a lot. We'll certainly reference some of the mistakes we made against Arkansas. But overall I though we had a really good nonconference."