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Gophers men’s basketball is up this season; so is the Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS — Like the Gophers men’s basketball team, the Big Ten Conference was way, way down last season.

With the Gophers as one of its biggest disappointments, the Big Ten had only four teams advance to the NCAA tournament a year ago — its fewest bids since 2008.

On the flip side with Minnesota’s 6-1 start through November, the Big Ten is way, way up so far this season.

The conference has seven teams in the Associated Press Top 25, the most of any league. If this plays out, Minnesota could be one of the Big Ten teams along with 67 others nationwide embarking on the road to the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 6-8.

The first draft of the Gophers’ resume has four wins over teams from major conferences — with one loss on the road to Boston College of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC is second in the poll with five teams, and the conferences split 14 games, 7-7 last week.

But the Gophers’ resume will be laminated or shredded based on the new, longer 20-game Big Ten schedule.

The Gophers will have a two-game foray into Big Ten play, then four games against lesser competition to round out the nonconference schedule and then a grind of 18 straight against league competition before tourney time. (The Big Ten added two conference games this season, up from 18 in previous years.)

Minnesota faces No. 16 Ohio State on Sunday, Dec. 2, at Value Center Arena in Columbus. The Gophers will return to face Nebraska at Williams Arena on Wednesday.

It’s an important year for the Gophers to bounce back. Last year, Minnesota was ranked 12th in the nation last November before the expulsion of center Reggie Lynch and injuries to Amir Coffey and Eric Curry were the biggest dominoes to fall and derail the season. The Gophers went 4-14 in Big Ten play, sinking coach Richard Pitino’s conference record to 31-59.

“It’s going to be a great conference, it always is,” Pitino, who’s in his sixth season in Minnesota, said Friday. “Last year was a little strange as I thought if we were healthy, we would have been a tournament team. In return if we were healthy, that would have been a quality win for Nebraska and you probably would have had six teams in (the tournament), maybe even Penn State because they lost to us. So in the end, it was all our fault.”

Michigan, as a third seed, advanced to the NCAA championship game and lost to Villinova in San Antonio. Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue were the other Big Ten teams to make last year’s tournament. Nebraska and Penn State were the first two teams left out a year ago.

Michigan returns as the class of the conference. The seventh-ranked Wolverines have three wins over ranked teams (Villinova, North Carolina and Purdue).

This year’s other ranked teams are: 9. Michigan State; 14. Iowa; 16. Ohio State; 19. Purdue; 22. Wisconsin; and 24. Maryland. Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska are receiving votes in the Top 25 poll.

The Gophers can be satisfied with where they sit so far. With a home win over Utah of the Pac-12 at the Barn in early November, Minnesota has neural-site wins against Texas A&M, Washington and Oklahoma State, 83-76, at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday.

“I think that that was our best game yet,” Pitino said from the Vikings stadium.

The Gophers preceded it with a 68-56 loss on the road to Boston College of the ACC on Monday but bounced back against an Oklahoma State team that has a quality win over then-19th-ranked Louisiana State last week. The Gophers have not beaten a ranked team this season, with Washington having fallen out before they met.

The bounce-back win over the Cowboys has the Gophers feeling a boost.

“I think it’s huge with momentum happening with being 6-1,” said senior forward Jordan Murphy, who had a season-high 23 points and 16 rebounds Friday. “Obviously coming off a win going into Sunday and then to get one Wednesday. We definitely just got to pay attention to the scouting report and the game plan the coaches set out for us and just be ready.”

Ohio State lost forward Keita Bates-Diop; the Big Ten player of the year in ’17-18 went to the NBA. The second-round pick has bounced between the Timberwolves and the minor league Iowa Wolves during his rookie season. The Buckeyes now rely on 6-foot-9 forward Kaleb Wesson, who has team highs of 14.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

After Pitino was named Big Ten coach of the year in 2016-17, Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann earned the honor last year. He is also 6-1 this season, with a loss to unranked Syracuse.

Unlike last year, the Gophers will need to stay healthy and see improvement from one key position in order to reach March Madness. Curry, the projected starting center, hasn’t played this season because of knee surgery and is coming up on the end of a six-week rehab. It appears like it will cost him the two-game dip into Big Ten play.

With Pittsburgh transfer point guard Marcus Carr denied his hardship waiver and the U’s appeal to make him eligible this season, a greater onus has been put on point guard Isaiah Washington to make it a sophomore surge.

After a career-high 11 assists in the season opener against Nebraska Omaha, Washington struggled through poor shooting nights that spilled over into other areas of his game. But against Oklahoma state, he had 15 points, including shooting 43 percent from 3-point range, with four assists and three turnovers.

“We felt like it’d be a good game for him,” Pitino said. “and he certainly delivered in that.”