Even before Richard Pitino and his players parked themselves at roundtables for Thursday’s one-on-one sessions at Big Ten Media Day, there were several reporters waiting for their arrival.
Other coaches and players were available during the hour interview period at Madison Square Garden. But Pitino was a must-see. Last season’s Big Ten coach of the year has a team returning enough talent to prove his 16-game turnaround wasn’t a fluke.
A year ago, Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy sat mostly by themselves at media day in Washington D.C., eyes pinned to their phones trying to ignore the fact that a room filled with media really had nothing much to ask two returning starters from an 8-22 team.
But Thursday in New York, Mason and Murphy had one opportunity after another to talk about why the Gophers could go from a 24-win NCAA tourney team that surprised the nation to a Big Ten title contender this year.
Aside from watching the Gophers get more attention, below are five things I took away from Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day.
- East Coast recruiting is a Big Ten thing – What happens when you have media day in New York City? More than half the questions asked are about why being on the east coast is so important for the Big Ten. Of course, Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers have rosters filled with East Coast kids, but I didn’t realize how much the rest of the Big Ten (other than Minnesota) recruited that region. There are several New York players sprinkled on different rosters, including Minnesota’s Isaiah Washington and Dupree McBrayer. Twelve of 14 Big Ten schools have at least one player from the east. Playing the Big Ten tournament in Madison Square Garden this year and in the future will only increase the exposure and strengthen recruiting in the area.
- Gophers players are respected by their peers – Players from Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue and Northwestern had high praise for Gophers Nate Mason, Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch. Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, said Coffey could have a big year and might end up in the NBA with him one day. Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh saw a lot of similarities between his game and Mason’s as two of the top point guards in the league. “I love watching him play. He’s a great change of pace guy. He uses ball screens really, really well. I like to say that’s kind of something I do, too.”
- Minnesota’s starting five is becoming clearer— I don’t know many coaches who would give away their starting lineup a few weeks before the season. Pitino isn't one of them. You’ll always hear coaches say, “If I had to play a game today my starters would be…” If the Gophers had to play today (they have a closed scrimmage Sunday at home vs. Creighton), I think Pitino would be cautious with certain players like junior Davonte Fitzgerald (knee injury last year). But his starters in my opinion from conversations in New York would be Mason, McBrayer, Coffey, Murphy and Lynch. Sound familiar? That was the same five that ended the season. Eventually, though, I think Mr. Jelly Fam aka Washington replaces McBrayer, but Mason moves from point guard to shooting guard. My guess is that happens before Big Ten play.
- Richard Pitino will always back his father – At 2016 Big Ten Media Day in D.C., Pitino was asked about his father’s knowledge of the escort scandal involving recruits at Louisville. He adamantly stated he thought his dad didn’t know that was going on. Rick Pitino didn’t survive the latest issue involving a recruit being allegedly paid $100,000 by an assistant. But Richard Pitino said Thursday in New York that “at the end of the day, you can say and you can write (stories)…none of that stuff really matters to me. I think he’s one of the best to ever do this. I know what he’s all about. I have no doubt in my mind that he’s about the right things. And I’m proud of him every single day and will continue to be proud of him.”
- Jordan Murphy wants to lead the league in rebounding – Ever since Jordan Murphy stepped onto the court for the first time at Minnesota he’s been a rebounding machine. Not since Trevor Mbakwe has there been a U player so adept at caroming nearly every ball that bounces off the boards within his reach. Murphy averaged 11.9 rebounds in his last 11 games as a sophomore. That didn’t even include snagging 21 rebounds vs. Michigan State. But it did include his 19 rebounds vs. Iowa last season. Mbakwe’s career high was 18 rebounds several years ago, but he still led the Big Ten in rebounding twice with 10.5 in 2010-11 and 8.7 in 2011-12. Murphy averaged 9.4 rebounds last season in Big Ten play, but he still finished behind Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan (12.6) for the conference high. Swanigan is gone to the NBA. So Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ (9.0 rebounds per game) is likely his biggest challenger for Murphy to take that crown. “I know I have that capability to lead the league and my team in rebounding,” Murphy said at media day Thursday. But will he do it? Consistency is the key.