Hours before the Gophers men’s basketball team plays a game on the road, there’s often another battle going down back home on the University of Minnesota campus.
On an otherwise deserted Bierman Building practice court, 6-9 Reggie Lynch and 6-8 Davonte Fitzgerald will square off in a lopsided game of 1-on-1.
“He always wants to start on the perimeter — I try to start inside,” Lynch said. The center doesn’t have Fitzgerald’s shooting touch and range, but he does have 55 pounds on his counterpart, and baseball mitts for hands. He grinned.
“I’ve won most of them.”
Fitzgerald chuckled but couldn’t argue.
“He’s a handful in the post,” the wing said. “But that’s why I like going against him. He’s a man amongst boys down there.”
In nine months, Lynch and Fitzgerald will be a major part of the Gophers roster, one coach Richard Pitino hopes will be much improved from the current version that is only 6-17 and a stunning 0-11 in Big Ten play heading into Wednesday’s game against Michigan.
Lynch’s size and shot-blocking prowess and Fitzgerald’s shooting ability likely will make them starters, putting them in position to change the current equation.
Both signed with Minnesota in spring of last year, agreeing to sit out a full season per NCAA rules. Lynch, an Edina native, started for two years at Illinois State before deciding he wanted to play closer to home. He set the school record for blocks by a freshman, and then again by a sophomore while also leading the nation in block percentage last season. Fitzgerald grew up in Atlanta and played two years at Texas A&M, developing the reputation as a spot shooter. But after an ACL injury cut a promising freshman season short — he averaged 7.3 points per game — his minutes dropped his sophomore year, from 15.7 to 9.6 a game, and Fitzgerald decided to leave in search of a “fresh start.”
Over the summer, Pitino lauded the pair as potentially the two most talented players on the team. But these days, still out of the public eye, they practice on the scout squad. At home games, they sit behind the bench, sometimes standing on their chairs as a way to feel involved. When the team hits the road, Lynch and Fitzgerald hang together back in Minneapolis, fulfilling assignments in the weight room and on the court, instigating their own head-to-head clashes and then watching the game over a plate of wings. Through it all, they’ve become fast friends by circumstance and chemistry, around each other more often than not.
“We were close from the beginning, just knowing we were going to be junior transfers,” Lynch said. “Now with everything we’ve gone through this year, it’s brought us even closer. We know that for our impact next year, we need to be able to play with each other.”
Life in the ‘Elite Room’
On one blustery Thursday night, Lynch, Fitzgerald and nine others piled into the “Elite Room.” At least that’s what Lynch calls his electronics-adorned Dinkytown dorm room. It has everything from a flat-screen TV and sound system, to the best “NBA 2K” video games and a recently purchased hoverboard, after all.
“I’m a big shopper,” Lynch said with a sigh. “I buy a lot of unnecessary things.”
His room has become the unofficial team hangout for PlayStation and movies. On this night, it’s the place to watch the Gophers’ game at Northwestern. Injured guard Ahmad Gilbert and five members of the Lynch family stop by.
The packed house is nothing new.
“Even though I have all the games, I don’t even play them,” said Lynch, who shares a room with junior forward Charles Buggs. “My teammates come play them. … But I still let them know when it’s time to go. I’m not feeding them.”
The open-door policy extends even further when it comes to Fitzgerald, who has made the pad his second home.
“I’m always in his room, bothering him,” Fitzgerald said. “I just pop in.”
Lynch feigned annoyance. “Yeah,” he said. “He has my hoverboard right now. He stole it the other day.”
“Oh yeah,” Fitzgerald said, as if just remembering, his lips curling upward. “I actually do.”
Often, the two transfers, along with whoever else stayed behind from the road trip, will venture to Buffalo Wild Wings or Tony’s Diner, chanting and screaming at the game on the screen. Thursday, they’re staying put in the Elite Room and opting for delivery pizza.
Watching, and not participating, is hard — even harder when the Gophers end up on the wrong side of the score. Last week, the two recalled back-to-back 25-point losses to Northwestern and Nebraska.
“That little stretch of the season was probably the hardest for me because it seemed like the team was playing with no confidence and the guys weren’t really trying,” Lynch said.
But with about four hours until game time in Evanston, Ill., Lynch and Fitzgerald are feeling optimistic. Lately, they said, they had seen a different brand.
“These guys are starting to play together,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to see a breakthrough soon.”
But six hours later, the Elite Room party’s enthusiasm had dimmed. Final score: Northwestern 82, Minnesota 58.
Waiting their turn
Lynch and Fitzgerald imagine how they might help the Gophers, describing how they’ll play together: Lynch will set a screen for Fitzgerald, who is dribbling on the perimeter, and then roll to the basket. Fitzgerald might dump it down to him for a score in the post, or maybe Lynch will kick it back out for a Fitzgerald three-pointer. They can almost see the scoreboard updating now.
Given their different skill sets, Lynch and Fitzgerald do the bulk of their workouts separately — the former works on rebounding and getting more efficient with his left hand, the latter focusing on shooting and ball handling. But the two relish the chance to work together.
“I talk to him the most on the court,” Fitzgerald said. “Just to get a feel for him.”
On and off the court, the two players waiting their turn have been building a relationship.
“Do you ever get tired of me?” Fitzgerald asked his teammate, grinning.
“Just when you come to the room at 3 a.m., waking me up,” Lynch growled. “He’s done that a couple times.”
Both couldn’t help but laugh. In a season when happier moments are hard to find, Lynch and Fitzgerald have found a way to have many.
“I’m actually really excited,” Fitzgerald said of next season. “I see us being a real surprise team. I know a lot of people won’t be looking at us, but that’s a good position to be in to wake a lot of people up.”