Rick Pitino has spoken to his son’s Gophers men’s basketball team several times over the years. The overriding theme from the former Louisville coach has been about playing disruptive defense.
“He’s one of the best coaches ever,” Gophers senior guard Dupree McBrayer said of Pitino. “He came every summer pointing out stuff to us, especially this year. ... Just about the similarities between his Louisville teams and our team … never really offensive things, it’s all defensive things.”
Gophers coach Richard Pitino preaches the same message as his father. There’s little doubt defense will be word of the day Thursday in Des Moines, where the 10th-seeded Gophers match up against seventh-seeded Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Louisville, nearly a year and a half separated from Rick after he was fired by the school amid a federal bribery investigation, is still trying to regain its once-renowned defensive identity. The Cardinals struggled on defense for large parts of the season.
The Gophers are looking to regain their defensive mojo, too. In Saturday’s 76-49 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals in Chicago, the Wolverines shot 52 percent from the floor, including 15-for-20 on layups and 10 three-pointers.
“It’s nothing to hang our heads about, because we were really gassed,” McBrayer said. “But that’s not an excuse. We can still control defense and effort. We were playing really good.”
The Gophers used defense to win four of five games as March arrived, including against Penn State and Purdue in the Big Ten tournament. Their adjusted defensive efficiency jumped to 36th in the country after the Purdue victory, the highest it had been all season. In the five games before Saturday’s, the Gophers held opponents to a combined 32.7 percent shooting from three-point range.
Gabe Kalscheur had his most impressive game of the season Friday against the Boilermakers, locking down the Big Ten’s leading scorer in Carsen Edwards (11 points on 4-for-17 shooting).
“It was really tough,” Kalscheur said. “He calls out so many screens, so you just have to know which way he’s going to go. He’s so quick. It was a tough task, but I love guarding the other team’s best player. It’s always a challenge.”
Kalscheur most likely will be matched up against Louisville senior guard Christian Cunningham, who averages 9.8 points and 4.9 assists per game. Cunningham struggled with only five points on 2-for-7 shooting and three turnovers in the Cardinals’ 83-70 loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu were able to defend well without getting into foul trouble in the Gophers’ two victories in Chicago. That could be a huge factor Thursday going up Jordan Nwora (averaging 17.2 points and 7.5 rebounds) and Dwayne Sutton (10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds).
Four of Louisville’s top five scores are in the frontcourt. And the Gophers’ depth inside is limited: Sophomore Eric Curry is out for the season after having foot surgery and senior center Matz Stockman still hasn’t been fully cleared for contact after suffering a concussion Friday.
“I feel like the most important thing is finding a way to play hard for a whole 40-minute game,” said Oturu, the 6-10 freshman. “Regardless, if we’re making shots or not, we just need to try to play defense as best as possible.”