There is one comparable in Gophers men’s basketball over the past couple of generations when it comes to a transformation from futility to a place in the NCAA tournament.
That would be the Gophers of 1988-89, a group that managed to finish fifth in a 10-team Big Ten. That was the bottom of a first division with astounding strength, including NCAA champion Michigan and semifinalist Illinois.
“It was the best conference in the country without debate,’’ Richard Coffey said. “We had six guys on our team who played in the NBA, and we fought like crazy to finish 9-9. That’s how many good players there were in the Big Ten then.’’
Coffey was among nine newcomers who arrived with Clem Haskins for the 1986-87 season. A rape charge (followed later by acquittals) in January 1986 had devastated the Gophers program and there were only four returning players for Haskins’ first season.
The Gophers were 6-30 in the Big Ten and 19-37 overall in the two seasons preceding the rebound and a trip to the NCAA tournament in March 1989.
Richard Pitino arrived under different circumstances in April 2013. Tubby Smith had a won an NCAA game for the first time in six seasons at Minnesota, but athletic director Norwood Teague wanted more and fired him.
The Gophers had a solid nucleus of upperclassmen and won the 2014 NIT in Pitino’s first season. There wasn’t much talent remaining after that.
The 2014-15 Gophers were 6-12 in the Big Ten, and 18-15 overall with a schedule so soft that they didn’t get an invite to the NIT. Then came 2015-16, and the losingest team in 120 years of Gophers basketball, 2-16 in the Big Ten and 8-23 overall.
Add it up and Seasons 2 and 3 for Pitino — 8-28 in an expanded, softer Big Ten and 26-38 overall — weren’t much different from Clem’s first two seasons three decades earlier.
“The turnaround is the same,’’ Richard Coffey said. “That’s about it. We were a different kind of team.’’
There is this similarity: Coffeys.
Richard was in his third season as a Gopher in 1988-89, and as a muscular, 6-6 sophomore, he had been the Big Ten’s leading rebounder. Amir is a slender, 6-8 freshman, and as a wing player of talent and terrific on-court instinct, one of the reasons Pitino went from highly criticized to Big Ten Coach of the Year.
“We had nine freshmen in 1986 and we grew together,’’ Coffey said. “The only big recruit in was Willie Burton. Clem Haskins and his coaches did a terrific job of development, of turning us into Big Ten players.’’
The benefits arrived in 1988-89, when the Gophers won twice in the NCAA tournament as a No. 11 seed before losing to Duke.
“This team didn’t grow up together like we did,’’ Richard Coffey said. “There are four new guys on this team, and putting them with three good players … that allowed this to take place.’’
The four main additions are freshmen Amir Coffey and Eric Curry, redshirt transfer Reggie Lynch and graduate transfer Akeem Springs. The holdovers of impact have been point guard Nate Mason (unanimously voted all-Big Ten), off guard Dupree McBrayer (a talented athlete) and Jordan Murphy (a reborn standout during the 8-1 run to end the conference schedule).
Richard Coffey and Melvin Newbern, a 6-5 fullback of a point guard, were the physical leaders on a physical team in 1988-89. Burton, center Jim Shikenjanski and senior guard Ray Gaffney were the other starters, with freshman Kevin Lynch and sophomore Walter Bond getting heavy minutes to lead a deep bench.
The most impressive effort of this impressive turnaround for Pitino’s program came Friday, when the Gophers outmuscled Michigan State 63-58 in the Big Ten quarterfinals.
This has been a victory formula for Spartans coach Tom Izzo for two great decades: defend, rebound, take it to an opponent.
On Friday, the desperate Spartans took 30 three-pointers (compared with 28 twos), as the Gophers brought the hammer.
“I’ll tell you, defense is so important, and Reggie Lynch … that is a ‘biiiig’ kid, a big man,’’ Richard Coffey said. “He has been amazing. He’s fouled out a few times, but Reggie is a defensive weapon that not many teams can match.’’
Coffey paused and said: “Losing Springs to that torn Achilles’, that’s tough. It’s not just Akeem’s shooting; he’s a big guard who would get after people. Akeem, and with Amir being 6-8, that gave the Gophers a lot of length defensively on the perimeter.’’
Kind of like Newbern and Lynch? “Yeah, a lot like that,’’ Richard said.
Maybe there are some similarities between the 1988-89 Gophers and the current Gophers, beyond the turnarounds to the NCAA and Coffeys.
Read Patrick Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick. E-mail him at email@example.com.