With his Gophers down big Wednesday at Illinois, Daniel Oturu took Richard Pitino’s speech to heart. The coach needed to see his team compete even as its insurmountable deficit grew in the second half.
Oturu, a 6-foot-10 freshman center, told himself when he walked out of every huddle that he wouldn’t quit, hoping his father and sister visiting from Minnesota — and more important, his teammates — noticed his consistent energy.
“I felt like I needed to try to rally my teammates by staying competitive and playing through the end,” said Oturu, who finished with a team-best 17 points and eight rebounds in the humbling 95-68 loss in Champaign, Ill. “Coach was preaching and continued to preach that every four minutes try to finish the game as strong as possible.”
The heavily one-sided contest, against a team that was previously winless in Big Ten play, shocked Pitino, his players and fans back home. Oturu learned another valuable lesson in arguably the toughest conference in college basketball.
“I feel like we lacked a lot of energy on both sides of the ball,” Oturu said. “Every single team in the Big Ten, all 14 teams are good teams, no matter what. Every team comes to play every day, so you got to bring it.”
As the crown jewel in Pitino’s 2018 recruiting class, the Cretin-Derham Hall product had high expectations for himself in his first year — safe to say higher than even those of the Gophers faithful who were excited about the size, length and athleticism the state’s top senior big man would bring to the program after his last-second dunk to win the state title against Apple Valley last spring.
Oturu certainly didn’t disappoint. He began the season as the starting center and has been a productive inside presence, with 10.6 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. He ranks third in the Big Ten in blocks (1.8) and leads all players in offensive rebounds per game (3.3).
“Very, very talented player, Daniel is,” Pitino said. “What’s exciting about him is he’s still very raw, but he’s producing. Production is important, but he still has a ways to go. He wants to learn. He wants to win. He competes.”
Entering Saturday night’s game against Penn State, the Gophers (13-4, 3-3 Big Ten) will need Oturu to continue his upward trajectory. In an early test against a Big Ten big man, Oturu had a rude awakening against Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson in a 20-point loss on Dec. 2. This weekend, he will face Nittany Lions junior Mike Watkins.
“Playing against [Wesson] already showed me this is how it’s going to be every night when we play in the Big Ten,” Oturu said. “After that game, I started to become more patient in the post. Not as jittery as I was earlier in the season. ... Take my time and survey the court. Look for the open man first before I make my move. Patience is the best thing you can have, especially if you’re going up against people I’m not as strong as. I have to do my best to use all my strength to finish through contact and take my time making moves.”
Oturu scored in double figures seven times in the past nine games, including four consecutive double-doubles, after getting humbled by Wesson in his Big Ten debut. He averaged 14.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks and shot 63.6 percent from the field during the Gophers’ 5-0 stretch in December.
Two-time All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy attracts constant double teams, so even he will look for Oturu a lot on the block. Oturu’s 15 dunks are only topped on the team by Murphy’s 20, but the freshman is the Gophers’ best offensive rebounder, getting tips and putbacks using a 7-foot-2 wingspan.
Staying out of foul trouble is a work in progress, but having redshirt sophomore Eric Curry back the past five games has given the Gophers more frontcourt depth. Curry has helped Oturu adjust from the start.
“He’s so smart as a basketball player,” Oturu said. “I learn something new every day when I’m around him.”
Oturu wants to add more strength to his 237-pound frame to become more of a force inside next season. But he is living a childhood dream right now playing for the Gophers.
Every home game this year, he has enjoyed looking up in the Barn crowd to see friends and family, and back at the dorms he lives with his former AAU teammates Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa, also Gophers freshmen.
After the loss at Illinois, Oturu can’t wait for the Gophers to prove they can play harder Saturday and give fans a reason to be optimistic again.
“Sometimes when you lose you have select few loyal fans and some fans are frustrated with us,” he said. “But I feel like the people who are still behind us even after tough losses are the people you still got to play for.”