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Chad Graff | St. Paul Pioneer Press | December 9, 2017

Minnesota aiming to meet new expectations

Minnesota entered the season with high expectations, despite last year, the worst season in program history.

Fresh off a loss to a Nebraska basketball program that has struggled for years, Richard Pitino gathered his No. 14 Gophers the other day to talk about national rankings.

A year ago, he told them, they were the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, a fine season by most accounts.

And yet, they were only ranked in the top 25 "for like a day," Pitino said.

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Now with two losses in their past three games, Pitino is stressing to his Gophers (8-2) that it matters little that they've been ranked in the top 15 all season, hoping instead they'll focus on Saturday's road test against Arkansas.

"Everybody told us we stunk last year and we weren't ranked," Pitino said. "We can't fall into the trap or the illusion where people tell us we're going to beat Miami at home because it's a great environment. That's not really why you're going to win. I found it a lot easier when people told us we were going to stink to get everybody to band together."

Instead, this Gophers team entered the season with high expectations since the first practice, a far cry from last season's team, which was coming off an 8-23 debacle, the worst season in program history.

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They were rarely favorites early on. This season, though, the Gophers were favorites last week against No. 12 Miami, a game they lost by six points. And on Tuesday they were heavy favorites against Nebraska, and lost by 10 points.

"We can't expect every team to just roll over for us because we have a ranking in front of our name," said center Reggie Lynch of Edina. "If we fall out of the top 25, we can't change, and if we stay in we have to realize that we can't come out with a sluggish effort like we did against Nebraska. We have to understand that we need to be the hunters and have that mind-set again.

"There was a lot that factored into the loss (at Nebraska), but most importantly we came out not really expecting the level of physicality that they ended up having. But we've turned the page."

Early-season rankings can be such a distraction, Pitino said, that he would prefer teams not be ranked until "late January." He pointed out that the college football ranking used to determine the four playoffs teams aren't revealed until eight weeks into the season -- though media and coaches poll run all season long, just like for basketball.

"Rankings are great for your fans," he said. "But in my ideal world, it would almost be like the college football playoff -- don't unveil the rankings until, like, late January. And there are all these preseason awards. A guy called me yesterday and said, 'I've got Jordan Murphy second for my national player of the year award.' What the hell is that? We've played 10 games."

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The Gophers' game Saturday at Arkansas (6-2) is their toughest remaining nonconference game, and provides a chance to boost their resume for a potential NCAA tournament appearance.

Arkansas' ratings percentage index, a metric the selection committee uses to seed teams, currently is No. 14 in the country, higher than any other Minnesota foe this season.

"If they listen and learn, it will be really beneficial," Pitino said of his team's tough nonconference schedule. "But you've got to win some of the games. Fortunately we got that Providence win and Alabama, and if we can get a win at Arkansas, that would be phenomenal. But we've got to be playing our best basketball in late January, early February. If we listen and learn and grow, it will be good for us."

This article is written by Chad Graff from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.