As the Gophers prepare to face Louisville on Thursday in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, there is no question this team will go as far as senior forward Jordan Murphy and junior guard Amir Coffey can take them.
Murphy’s Gophers career will end soon, and it was one of the greatest college basketball success stories in recent memory. Coming out of William J. Brennan High School in San Antonio, he was ranked the 167th-best prospect in the nation in the Class of 2015 by 247sports.com. Baylor offered Murphy a scholarship, but that was the only Texas school recruiting him.
Last week, the 6-7 Murphy was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the media and to the second team by the coaches. He will finish his career as the Gophers’ leading rebounder and the second-best rebounder in Big Ten history. He needs 17 points to pass Willie Burton for second in career scoring among Gophers as well.
Coffey, meanwhile, remains perhaps the most important local signing of Richard Pitino’s tenure as Gophers coach. The 6-8 Hopkins standout was the No. 49 recruit in the Class of 2016.
He has been perhaps the best player in the Big Ten over the past three weeks, winning back-to-back Big Ten player of the week awards to end the regular season and being named to the All-Big Ten third team by the media and the coaches. Coffey also averaged 19 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals in three Big Ten tournament games.
Here’s how important Coffey and Murphy are to the Gophers’ success in the NCAA tournament:
The Gophers finished 21-13 this season. In their victories, Coffey averaged 18.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.1 steals. In their losses, he averaged 12.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 0.6 steals.
The difference in Murphy’s statistics are just as telling. In the Gophers’ victories, Murphy averaged 16.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.1 blocks. In their losses, he averaged 12.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.4 blocks.
The biggest early story line for the Gophers game has been about Pitino facing Louisville — his father Rick Pitino’s former program, from which he was fired following his alleged involvement in a recruiting scandal in 2017 — and the team where Richard worked as an assistant coach from 2007-2009 and again from 2011-2012.
The Cardinals reached the Elite Eight in each of Richard Pitino’s first two seasons as an assistant at Louisville. When he returned for the 2011-2012 season, they reached the Final Four.
As the Louisville Courier Journal put it in a headline this week — “Louisville vs. Pitino in March Madness” — which shows the NCAA’s inclination to create provocative matchups.
The Cardinals are five-point favorites over the Gophers, but they are far from a perfect team. Louisville’s biggest claim to fame this season might have been the 71-69 loss they suffered at home to Duke on Feb. 12, when the Cardinals blew a 23-point second-half lead. They lost seven of their final 10 games.
Coyle talks Pitino
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle talked this weekend about how he viewed Pitino’s performance.
“Obviously, Richard and I have a very close relationship, and I am very excited for him and the team,” Coyle said. “We made a nice run in Chicago [in the Big Ten tournament], and we’re excited about [the NCAA tournament].
“The hard thing is we’ve been to nine NCAA tournaments that count; we had to vacate four of those appearances. I think it’s Rutgers and Nebraska and we rank near the bottom of the Big Ten in NCAA tournament appearances. This is the second time he has taken us there in his six years here, and he won the NIT championship his first year here. It takes time to build these programs the right way. I know Richard and his staff will work hard to get us prepared for the NCAA tournament.”
Does Coyle foresee extending Pitino’s contract at the end of this season?
“Richard has got a multiyear contract in place and that is something we always talk with Richard about,” he said. “Again, he and I have a wonderful relationship and we’ll talk about building this program long-term. But again, in my opinion, he is doing really good things with our student-athletes on and off the court. You’re just really grateful for the hard work and effort he puts forward.”
Pitino is under contract through the 2021-22 season, after agreeing to a one-year extension in 2017 that included $1.7 million in additional bonuses that take effect if he remains at Minnesota.
Big Ten top conference
Coyle also noted that the Big Ten got the most teams in the NCAA tournament of any conference with eight.
“The great thing about the Big Ten is we share everything equally among all 14 members,” Coyle said. “The more teams we get in the tournament, the better for the conference. As you advance and win games, the conference gets units. For example, Minnesota gets in and we play three games, that would be three units. If we play in a fourth game, that’s a fourth unit.
“The more units you build up as a conference, the more money you have to disperse among the institutions. It’s a good system. We’re just grateful to be a part of the Big Ten because of how that works for our program.”
Last season, each unit was worth $273,500 a year over six years. In 2018, the Big Ten participated in 12 games in the tournament and earned $19.7 million, which is split up equally among the member schools and distributed annually over six years.
This year they are guaranteed a minimum of eight units, with the Gophers, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin making the field.
• Former DeLaSalle standout Reid Travis, who began his college career at Stanford and is now playing for Kentucky, will be with the Wildcats as they face Abilene Christian in the NCAA Midwest Regional at 6:10 p.m. Thursday. The 6-8 forward had 11 points and six rebounds in Kentucky’s 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals.
• Former Apple Valley star Tre Jones will make his first NCAA tournament appearance with Duke at 6:10 p.m. Friday against North Dakota State in the East Regional. The 6-2 freshman point guard averaged 14.7 points, 6.0 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game as the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament and received the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAAs.
• Theo John, the former Champlin Park standout now with Marquette, is averaging 5.7 points and 4.8 rebounds as a sophomore forward. The Golden Eagles face Murray State in the West Regional at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.