Richard Pitino knows his team needs to be playing at a high level when back-to-back ranked opponents Alabama and Miami (Fla.) come up on the schedule soon.
Beating up on inferior teams such as Alabama A&M in Tuesday’s 100-57 victory at Williams Arena hasn’t exactly been the best preparation for those tougher games.
Four of Minnesota’s first five opponents this season were ranked 199th or lower out of 351 Division I basketball teams by advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy entering Tuesday, including Alabama A&M at 350th.
By far the biggest test so far came in an 86-74 win Nov. 13 at Providence, a potential NCAA tournament team.
A weaker home schedule to start has its advantages. Pitino was able to go 10-players deep with his rotation and still keep his starters sharp. The bench scored a season-high 42 points Tuesday.
“I wanted our starters playing crisp minutes together,” Pitino said. “I saw that, and I thought they were really good. And then obviously I wanted to get the bench guys some minutes.”
The Gophers (5-0) will spend Thanksgiving in New York to prepare to play Friday against Massachusetts and Saturday against No. 22 Alabama in the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn. They then return home to play Wednesday against No. 11 Miami.
Jordan Murphy had a team-high 20 points, 10 rebounds and four steals in 22 minutes Tuesday for the Gophers, who shot 61 percent from the field and forced 19 turnovers. Murphy was the only starter to play in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Murphy, who became the U’s first back-to-back Big Ten player of the week winner Monday, picked up his fifth straight double-double after subbing in to grab one rebound around the five-minute mark in the second half.
“I didn’t know if I was done or not,” Murphy said. “After the 10th rebound, he took me out. I definitely told him, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Nate Mason started Tuesday’s game making his first five shots and finished with all of his 12 points in the first half. The senior point guard hasn’t missed a beat coming off earning All-Big Ten first team honors last season.
Pitino was able to give freshmen Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris and junior Davonte Fitzgerald more opportunities against Alabama A&M (0-4).
Washington struggled to score, with just six points on 2-for-8 shooting, but he had eight assists with just two turnovers in 21 minutes. Harris scored 11 points in 18 minutes. Fitzgerald had 13 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes.
In the second half, Harris nailed three consecutive three-pointers from the corner to ignite the crowd. A few minutes later, Washington kept fans energized with his trademark “jelly” layup to make it 86-49 at 5:51.
While the Gophers might not get résumé points for playing a soft home schedule so far, the experience they gave their bench could prove more valuable moving forward.
“These next five games will be pretty big,” Fitzgerald said. “The bench, we’re going to have to step up a lot. The starting five really has a good flow going out there. So our job is to come in and not have any downfalls.”