By Dylan Hughes | @ByDylanHughes
INDIANAPOLIS – Early in the evening, the opening matchup of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Northwestern Wildcats started as a normal game. By the time Minnesota advanced to the second round with a victory over the Wildcats, the fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse had learned that they would not be able to attend another one.
The conference announced that as a result of concerns related to the spread of COVID-19, attendance for the remaining sessions starting Thursday afternoon would be “limited to student-athletes, coaches, event staff, essential team and Conference staff, TV network partners, credentialed media, and immediate family members of the participating teams.”
The 12th-seeded Gophers (15-16) advanced to a game against No. 5 Iowa scheduled for Thursday afternoon. But it became clear that the backdrop would be unlike anything Big Ten teams have experienced since this event began in 1998.
“It will be a different atmosphere, kind of like a closed scrimmage but obviously more on the line,” Minnesota junior guard Payton Willis said. “We’ll be coming out and competing just like there’s fans out there.”
Two announcements earlier in the day immediately raised questions about the future of conference tournaments. The NCAA announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played without fans. The National Basketball Association announced it was suspending the season effective after Wednesday night’s games. As of early Thursday morning, there was no additional announcement from the Big Ten about any other changes. The Gophers were planning to proceed into a new reality.
“We’re going to come out with the same mentality,” said sophomore guard Marcus Carr. “Obviously, it’s going to be a new environment for us, but we’re just going to come out with the mentality to win.”
Minnesota sophomore center Daniel Oturu led the Gophers with 24 points and had eight rebounds. Carr scored 14 points with five rebounds and five assists. Junior guard Payton Willis scored 12 points with six rebounds.
Led by the 6-foot-10 Oturu, Minnesota jumped out to a 10-point lead, 53-43, with 11:20 remaining. From there, the Wildcats couldn’t rein in the Golden Gophers’ trio of Oturu, Carr and Willis. The three combined for 17 points during a 19-6 Minnesota run on the way to a 69-49 lead.
Northwestern (8-23) was led by sophomore forward Pete Nance, who scored 15 points and made 6 of 10 shots. Northwestern allowed an average of 38.1 rebounds per game, the second most in the conference. The Golden Gophers outrebounded the Wildcats, 41-32. Minnesota outscored the Wildcats on second-chance points, 22-5.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins doesn’t anticipate much change in the tournament despite the absence of fans.
“I think the players that are here, the coaches that are here, even though the fans won’t be – there won’t be any lack of intensity,” Collins said. “This Big Ten season has been such a fight for all these teams, that I’d be shocked if you saw in the dip in the level of play.”