NEW YORK – A day before his Gophers basketball team opened the Big Ten tournament, Richard Pitino answered a tough question about how much this disappointing season would affect his job and program moving forward.
The fifth-year Minnesota coach hopes his administration, fans and recruits can look beyond the struggles his undermanned squad endured this year to see there’s still optimism for next season once more talent is added and players return healthy.
“You never feel safe in our profession,” Pitino said Tuesday. “You hope it doesn’t affect your recruiting and narrative of your program.”
Even playing against the conference’s last-place team Wednesday night, the Gophers couldn’t keep their season alive in a 65-54 opening-round Big Ten tournament loss against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.
Pitino never liked using injuries as an excuse, but he didn’t know how else to describe what caused arguably the most promising season of his young coaching career to fall apart.
“There was a reason why we struggled,” Pitino said Wednesday. “When the expectations were high, we had a full roster. When we lost players, obviously it changed. I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Once ranked as high as No. 12 in the nation, the Gophers (14-16) finished the season with losses in 14 of their final 16 games, which included a nine-game losing streak from mid-January to mid-February.
Even with returning All-Big Ten players Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy, Pitino struggled to make the pieces fit without center Reggie Lynch (suspension) and guard Amir Coffey (shoulder injury) for most of Big Ten play.
Freshman guard Isaiah Washington finished with a team-high 18 points in his return to his home state. But the Gophers didn’t have much else going offensively, shooting 34.6 percent.
Mason, a senior guard, finished No. 5 in career scoring and No. 2 in assists in team history, but he wasn’t healthy enough to end his career with his best performance. The Georgia native was battling the flu, a hip injury and a bruise on his shin after getting banged up in the past few games.
Minnesota didn’t score its first field goal until nearly the 10:26 mark in the first half after going 0-for-9 from the field. Mason opened the game missing his first six shots and finished with 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Murphy, who turned 21 on Wednesday, had 11 points and nine rebounds.
“Just coming into the season with so many expectations and to get it taken away from us, it’s almost unreal,” said a teary-eyed Mason in the locker room. “… But we definitely became better men, brothers and teammates from this season.”
The Scarlet Knights (14-18) entered the game with 10 losses in 11 games, but they led by as much as nine points in the first half and 34-27 at halftime.
Minnesota’s bench erupted when Murphy’s dunk cut Rutgers’ lead to 49-47 with 6:46 left in the second half, but the Gophers wouldn’t get any closer.
Rutgers guard Corey Sanders, who scored 15 of his 23 points in the first half, nailed a three-pointer to extend it to a five-point advantage on the ensuing possession.
The MSG crowd, dressed in mostly scarlet, chanted “Let’s go Rutgers!” in the final minute. The Scarlet Knights, who are basically the home team playing 20 miles from campus in New Jersey, will play No. 6 seed Indiana on Thursday night in the second round.
The Gophers, who lost the rebounding battle 49-28, finished with their second losing season in the past three years, coming off a 24-win NCAA tournament campaign in 2016-17.
Sophomore forward Eric Curry is almost fully back from a knee injury that ended his season in August. Coffey is looking at a six-month recovery after shoulder surgery last week. Junior Dupree McBrayer, who has battled a left leg injury for half the season, will finally have time to heal as well.
A top-30 recruiting class coming in has Pitino and his players hoping next season can turn into another major turnaround, but the Gophers know nothing is guaranteed.
“Anything can happen during any season,” Murphy said. “Just don’t be complacent with where you are right now. Always become a better player and improve on every aspect of your game. I think that’s what everyone has to take into the offseason.”