WASHINGTON — After Minnesota lost 23 games a season ago, there wasn't much preseason love for the Golden Gophers.
Even after a 12-1 non-conference season, a run in the Big Ten — where they were 2-16 last year — seemed a tough ask. A five-game losing streak didn't help that perception.
But then the Gophers rattled off eight straight wins and knocked off perennial March powerhouse Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday afternoon.
If you're surprised, maybe you haven't been paying attention over the last month and a half. If you weren't, your name might've been Reggie Lynch.
"We knew we were going to be a great team before the season even started," said Lynch, Minnesota's big man and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, after Friday's win. "As the season has gone on, we knew we were going to be one of the better teams. We're trying to climb to the highest seed we could get.
"It's really just been a great year. We're not done yet."
Friday's win in the conference tournament perhaps more than anything besides that flipped record — from 8-23 last season to 24-8 this season — underlined how incredible this turnaround has been.
In last season's Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota was squashed, losing by more than 30 points to an Illinois team that didn't even sniff the NCAA tournament bubble. This season, it's a double bye and a win over Michigan State to reach the semifinals.
"There was nothing more demoralizing than going to a conference tournament last year with three players suspended (and) Joey King (injured with a) broken foot. I walked out of the elevator today, there was our band, our cheerleaders. I don't remember anyone there playing songs last year," Pitino said. "Maybe they did, I don't know. I might have gone out the backdoor.
"So this is what March is supposed to be all about. We did believe we would be a good team. We just felt like we were going to have to eat crow for a little while, for a couple months. Internally we believed that we were really going to make a huge jump. Our guys have shown that. I mean, we've won nine of 10 in this conference. We won eight in a row. That's pretty special."
For those who have been paying attention, Minnesota's win Friday was hardly unexpected. The Gophers have been among the conference's best teams this season and especially since the start of February. They've lost just one time since.
But the talk in Saturday's semifinal with Michigan will likely be all about the Wolverines. After all, that's a heck of a story, what with Michigan enduring that aborted-takeoff nightmare on Wednesday before winning twice in two days here in Washington, including Friday's upset of top-seeded Purdue.
But Pitino, meaning no disrespect to Michigan, thinks Minnesota is worthy of some discussion, as well.
"Don't get me wrong. What Michigan went through, it makes you all think twice," Pitino said. "I'm so happy for those guys, that they're safe, that they're playing for each other. Something like that puts everything in perspective. So happy that all those guys are safe. They were able to get here. They're embracing the moment. They're not rattled by it, which is special to see.
"But I think we got a pretty special story, too.
"I think our story is great. We went into the season with a lot of question marks, a lot of uncertainty. We ended a season with, you know, nobody really believing in us. I'm not sure they should have. We just dealt with it. We believed in what we were doing. We turned it around."