The Gophers men’s basketball team didn’t get on national television — or even local TV — for Tuesday night’s 104-76 victory against Omaha.
That didn’t matter, because ESPN’s legendary analyst Dick Vitale brought up Richard Pitino’s team and its star player, Jordan Murphy, twice while covering Michigan State vs. Kansas on ESPN in Indianapolis.
College basketball fans nationally were on that potential Final Four matchup to open the season, but Vitale brought up what fans in attendance at Williams Arena saw — that the Gophers have the pieces to be a sleeper in the Big Ten this season.
“We’re not worried about that,” senior guard Dupree McBrayer said. “People are going to talk about us, regardless, good or bad. We want it to be good, so for the fans, we’re going to play hard, defend and earn every seat in the arena to be filled.”
Minnesota finished 15-17 after injuries derailed the team in the second half of last season. A sign of just how deep the Gophers could be compared to a year ago came midway through the second half when Murphy, streaking down the lane, took a pass from McBrayer and hammered down a two-handed dunk.
Murphy, who led the nation in double-doubles last season, reached double figures in points on that highlight hoop, but his team already was ahead 77-51. Junior Amir Coffey led the Gophers with 15 of his 18 points in the first half. Murphy eventually finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes. McBrayer, back healthy after a leg injury limited him last season, also contributed 17 points, while the Gophers shot 70 percent from the field in the second half.
Granted, the competition will get much, much stiffer moving forward. Monday’s game against Utah will begin a grueling stretch of seven of eight opponents from major conferences, including No. 25 Washington in Vancouver just before Thanksgiving.
Pitino has to go through the toughest November during his tenure (only two home games in that month for the first time since 2007) without talented redshirt sophomore Eric Curry, who is out four to six weeks after left knee surgery. What gives the Gophers hope of the frontcourt staying competitive in Curry’s absence is freshman Daniel Oturu, who had 14 points and eight rebounds in his debut.
“When you’re down Eric Curry, it’s going to be very, very challenging,” Pitino said. “As much as I do like our team, there’s going to be some young guys in there.”
Minnesota’s first challenge came sooner than expected.
The Mavericks were 9-22 last season, but they at times resembled the team that upset Iowa on the road in 2016. Zach Jackson, who had 21 points, sparked Omaha on a 14-2 run midway through the first half. Former Champlin Park star JT Gibson’s three-pointer made it 22-20 Mavericks with 8 minutes, 29 seconds left in the half, but Coffey then ignited a 30-9 run to build a 50-31 halftime lead.
Coffey, who played primarily point guard and was healthy after missing 14 games because of a shoulder injury last season, scored 11 points in the last eight minutes of the first half.
The Gophers offense is much further along than the defense at this point, but they showed at least the potential to be disruptive with their length. They scored 21 points off 18 Mavericks turnovers.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Washington put on a show with a career-high 11 assists, including two alley-oop passes to freshman Jarvis Omersa for dunks to wow the home crowd in the second half.
“When I threw the alley-oops, it was a great feeling,” Washington said. “Me and him have been talking about that for a long time.”
The more the Gophers win, the more national observers such as Vitale will sing their praises. And other players besides Murphy might get attention as well.