The preseason hype for the Gophers men’s basketball team is reaching levels higher than it’s been since — well, maybe ever. Social media creates momentum and excitement unlike teams had the last time the program had a Big Ten title contender 20 years ago.
In his fifth season as Minnesota’s coach, Richard Pitino has not only his best team but one that everyone is talking about — locally and around the country.
It’s a position unfamiliar to these Gophers.
A year ago, they were predicted to finish second-to-last in the Big Ten. After a 24-win season, they’re ranked 15th in both major preseason polls, which is the team’s highest spot since being 10th in 1993-94, coming off an NIT championship with Voshon Lenard leading the way.
While past teams would be worried about the perception of getting outscored 13-2 in the early part of their exhibition opener against a Division II opponent, Minnesota barely blinked Thursday night before eventually cruising to a 106-58 victory against Concordia (St. Paul) at Williams Arena.
Jordan Murphy muscled his way to nearly a double-double in the first half, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead the way. Nate Mason also had 15 points, six rebounds and five assists for the Gophers, who led 52-30 at halftime.
Minnesota is expected to receive more of a test Sunday when it plays another exhibition game for hurricane relief against Wisconsin-Green Bay at Maturi Pavilion.
But there still were teaching moments Thursday for Pitino to try and keep a talented and highly-ranked team such as the Gophers from buying into the preseason praise.
“There’s still work to be done,” Pitino said was his message this offseason. His biggest challenge was trying to make sure his players could handle success.
Pitino barked at some of his players Thursday from the sideline for mistakes rotating on defense in the first half. Rarely used reserve Gaston Diedhiou even replaced Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch for a few minutes to send a message.
It didn’t take long for Lynch and company to get the point. Murphy and Lynch have the potential to be part of one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten with their athleticism, size and physicality.
That became clear late in the first half when Murphy scored the last two baskets of the first half, including a put-back on Lynch’s missed jumper. Murphy recorded 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks by halftime.
Pitino challenged Murphy to be more of a leader as a third-year starting forward this season. The 6-6 junior provided energy and effort throughout the game. Mason, a senior captain, matched that intensity and made sure to get his teammates involved.
The Gophers returned five starters from an NCAA tournament team last season and that chemistry was obvious in their ball movement.
In the second half, Mason nailed back-to-back three-pointers but also found Lynch running the lane twice for dunks in stride. And by the time Murphy got back into the action on consecutive baskets, it was a 69-34 advantage near the 16-minute mark.
Exhibitions are a chance to shake the rust off for returnees such as Mason, Murphy and Lynch, but they are also an opportunity for newcomers to make their debut in front of the home crowd.
No player’s first game was more anticipated in recent years than freshman Isaiah Washington, who was New York’s player of the year. The Harlem point guard came off the bench and showed some jitters, especially while foul shooting (2-for-6).
But Washington did give Gophers faithful what they wanted to see. His trademark “Jelly” layup came midway through the second half on a reverse shot that drew cheers. He finished with nine points and four assists.
Fellow freshman guard Jamir Harris also had 12 points in his debut. Last season’s top recruit was Amir Coffey, who had 10 points and six assists Thursday.