Nate Mason whispered something to Richard Pitino before entering the huddle during a timeout in the first half of Saturday’s victory against Penn State.
The Gophers’ junior captain, leading scorer and All-Big Ten candidate had a request.
“Let’s run a play for Amir to get him going,” Mason said to Pitino.
That brief exchange illustrates why this is not only the best Gophers men’s basketball team in many years but also the most enjoyable to watch.
The best player on the team wanted to get freshman Amir Coffey involved in the action because Mason understands that the Gophers’ sum is greater than any individual part.
Pitino calls this group of players the most unselfish he has ever coached. Their style of play supports that praise. No egos, and one must search deep in the program’s archives to find a team as balanced as this one.
Many of the factors that have contributed to a 22-7 record will make the Gophers a tough matchup in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
They don’t rely on one or two superstars to do all the heavy lifting on offense. They rank in the top 10 nationally in blocks, defensive rebounding and three-point shooting defense.
That’s a winning formula, also a fun brand of basketball to watch.
The Gophers won’t be the most talented or experienced team in the tournament. But they are peaking at the right time with a blueprint that showcases their balance and cohesion.
Pitino should be a lock for Big Ten Coach of the Year for overseeing the largest win-difference turnaround in college basketball this season. The process started back in the summer when Pitino took ownership of a public-relations nightmare that left his program in full-blown crisis.
Pitino set forth to change the perception and his players bought in to necessary changes. That helped nurture a positive culture that has carried over to the court.
The Gophers play the right way. They display no sense of entitlement on the floor, and they share the ball like a group text message.
No player averages more than 13 shots per game. Five players are averaging double figures in scoring, which hasn’t happened in their program since the 1965-66 season.
Only one Division I team — UCLA with six — has more players who average double figures in scoring this season, according to STATS LLC.
Akeem Springs arrived as a graduate transfer and quickly established himself as a mature team leader. Dupree McBrayer didn’t pout when he lost his starting job, instead becoming a valuable contributor off the bench.
Gaston Diedhiou has played seven minutes total after appearing in 24 games last season. Staffers praise his attitude behind the scenes. Bakary Konate has been demoted to reserve and seen his playing time cut in half from last season. Pitino has never seen him slack off in practice.
Those things matter for a program establishing its identity. Fans notice too, and they care. The Gophers have become likable again.
Their formula should serve them well in the tournament. Teams that lean heavily on one or two primary scorers are susceptible to cold shooting games or creative defensive schemes.
The Gophers’ balance allows them to mitigate poor shooting performances because they don’t have a true go-to scorer. They have a Plan B, C and D.
The Gophers also have transformed themselves from one of the worst defensive teams in college basketball to one of the hardest to shoot against.
Three-point shooting has revolutionized the way teams play and has become a great equalizer in the tournament. An underdog that shoots three-pointers effectively probably isn’t much of an underdog in reality.
The Gophers defend three-point shooting almost as well as any team in college basketball, ranking 10th nationally at 30.1 percent. They ranked 328th last season at 38.1 percent.
Amazing the effect better talent has.
Before the season, Pitino opened a practice to media members for a glimpse of his revamped roster. It felt like a home improvement show where viewers get to see before and after shots of a renovation.
Everything looked different, better. Pitino’s anticipation was apparent that day, with good reason.
There is a lot to like about his team.