Gophers ranked for 1st time in nearly 4 years

Published 8:49 am Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Big Ten opener for Minnesota two weeks ago felt as familiar as it was frustrating.

That 15-point lead the Gophers held late in the first half at home against Michigan State vanished in what became a one-point loss, following failed final-shot possessions to win the game in both regulation and overtime. Though these Spartans weren’t as formidable as many editions past, they’re still a challenging opponent that makes for a statement victory.

“Everybody, and I get it, is going, ‘Here we go again,’” coach Richard Pitino said.

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Except they didn’t.

Road wins at Purdue and Northwestern were backed up with a home victory over Ohio State on Sunday night that pushed the Gophers (15-2, 3-1) into a tie for first place in the conference race. By Monday morning, they were in The Associated Press rankings for the first time in nearly four years.

The Gophers debuted in the AP poll at No. 24, their first appearance in the Top 25 under Pitino. They were last ranked the week of Feb. 4, 2013.

“It just speaks to how hard we’re working,” sixth man Akeem Springs said after scoring 18 points against the Buckeyes. “If you read some of the stuff they said about us before the season, it’s a positive step. Sky’s the limit for us.”

Pitino has expressed wariness of such an accolade, of which there are sure to be more if the Gophers stay on track.

“I don’t want to be ranked,” he said wryly last week. “Keep us out of it.”

The “disrespect card” Pitino said he loves to play was never easier to find in the coach’s deck than this fall, coming off an 8-23 finish that featured the most losses in the sport’s 121-year history at the school and off-the-court trouble for multiple players on the roster. University President Eric Kaler, during his public introduction of new athletic director Mark Coyle, singled out the program with a stern admonishment of the “continuing episodes” of misbehavior, alleged or otherwise.