A frosty Richard Pitino was walking to his car outside an Edina grocery store on New Year’s Eve when he was approached by a Gophers fan who had a pretty snarky remark about the coach’s 12-3 men’s basketball team.
“Can’t believe you only won by 10 vs. Harvard,” Pitino said, recalling the comment about the Gophers’ 65-55 victory in front of a sellout crowd the previous day at Williams Arena.
The easy response would have been to mention the Gophers were playing without their All-Big Ten point guard and senior captain Nate Mason, who is still day-to-day because of an ankle injury.
Pitino also could have said Harvard was better than its 5-7 record indicated.
He knows nobody wants to hear excuses, especially not when the season started with such high expectations.
“Everybody’s down on our team right now,” Pitino said. “Not ‘sky is falling’ down, but I think there’s a ‘maybe they’re not as good …’ ”
Expectations were for his Gophers to blow out midmajor opponents such as Harvard. Expectations were for the Gophers to be ranked in the top 20 and look like not only a potential high seed in the NCAA tournament, but a team that could eventually put fear into Michigan State in the Big Ten title race.
That’s not the reality, though, as the conference season gets into full gear for the Gophers with home games Wednesday against Illinois and Saturday against Indiana.
The reality is college basketball observers and fans are realizing the Gophers probably were overhyped. Pitino even hinted at that before the season, while lamenting the season-ending knee injury to valuable backup Eric Curry.
“I’ve got to get our team to understand: Let’s control what we can control,” Pitino said. “Let’s get better and really, really excited about the next 16 games.”
No. 1 Michigan State and No. 13 Purdue now are the only two ranked teams in the Big Ten. Those two are also ranked in the top 30 by the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and possess advanced stats that match Villanova and Duke, per stat guru Ken Pomeroy. The perception is that the rest of the Big Ten is far behind the Spartans and Boilermakers, including the Gophers, with an RPI outside the top 50.
A month ago, Pitino had a top-15 team seen as anywhere from a solid Sweet 16 to a sleeper Final Four pick after victories over Providence and Alabama. Now as Big Ten play resumes this week, the Gophers face some concerning questions: Can they establish a defensive identity, as they did last year? Can they get consistency off their bench? Can they stay healthy? If not, can they even get back to the NCAA tourney?
When the Gophers lost three of four in late November and early December, some quickly changed their perception of the team. Others still saw top-25 potential.
“They have not looked great recently, but I cannot see anyone jumping ahead of the Gophers at the moment,” Big Ten analyst Jon Crispin wrote in ranking Minnesota right behind Michigan State and Purdue. “They’ll develop better balance as the season persists. It’ll get tougher and tougher for Jordan Murphy to dominate games, which I see as a positive thing in the search for balance. This is still a legitimate top-20 team.”
Murphy is being hailed as a top candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, as he leads the conference with 19.1 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. Yet, the Gophers aren’t considered the biggest contender outside Michigan State anymore. Purdue bounced back from a couple bad losses to post several signature victories. The Boilermakers have learned how to win without last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan, now in the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Gophers still are trying to replace two key players from last season in graduated senior guard Akeem Springs and Curry. They both provided more depth and made the team better defensively. Newcomers Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris and Davonte Fitzgerald haven’t been able to replace that impact, even though Washington was the most hyped recruit Pitino had landed.
The Gophers dropped out of the top 25 after road losses at Nebraska and Arkansas. Pitino would say rankings don’t matter.
But it matters that the Gophers are a couple of losses from seeing their name on the wrong side of the early NCAA tournament conversation. They are on the bubble as a projected 11th seed and one of the “last four teams in” the NCAA field, according to ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket.
After a nonconference low point came Dec. 11 as Williams Arena fans booed during a one-point victory over Drake, the Gophers have put together a four-game winning streak going back into Big Ten play. The bench is improved, as is the defense.
The Gophers are the only Big Ten team playing three starters 30-plus minutes and only two reserves 10-plus minutes. But Washington, Harris, Fitzgerald and Michael Hurt gained confidence with more playing time in recent games.
“As a coach, I have to trust my bench,” Pitino said. “That four-game stretch was extremely important for a lot of things. I can’t play five guys 40 minutes each. I need to be able to go to that bench. I feel comfortable where we’re at right now.”
The Gophers’ past four opponents have combined to shoot 35.9 percent from the floor (92-for-256), which helped the team rise to fifth in the conference in field-goal defense (40.4 percent).
Three-point shooting defense and rebounding defense are two areas that are still a work in progress, but the Gophers have spent several recent practices focusing on their weaknesses.
“I think the team has tremendous potential in all the pieces we have,” Murphy said. “I think when we’re locked in mentally and when we’re playing as a team, I think we’re one of the best in the country. When it comes to goals for the season, our ultimate goal is still to win a Big Ten title.”