Since the matchup first appeared on the screen Sunday, showing seventh-seeded Louisville vs. 10th-seeded Minnesota, Gophers upperclassmen have been filling the ears of younger teammates on what to expect on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“You need the older guys who have been there before to act like they’ve been there before,” coach Richard Pitino said Tuesday. “It’s win or go home, so you better be ready to compete. Hopefully, those guys in the locker room tell the younger guys what it’s all about.”
The upperclassmen learned the hard way. In 2017, the Gophers played their first NCAA tournament game under Pitino as a No. 5 seed against Middle Tennessee State in Milwaukee. The Blue Raiders were a popular 5-12 upset pick — not just because they were a 30-win team, but also because they had several top players back from a team that as a No. 15 seed upset No. 2 seed Michigan State in 2016.
“I did not think they should’ve been a 12 seed,” said Dupree McBrayer, now a Gophers senior guard. “They were very good.”
The Gophers’ tournament run lasted all of two hours, and they were sent home from Wisconsin in the first round.
“It’s all about experience,” McBrayer said. “Guys from Middle Tennessee had experience. They knew what to do in the moment. We were in our first time there, and we didn’t know how to handle the pressure.”
This time around, the Gophers return five players who were on that tournament team, including starters Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and McBrayer. Thursday’s game in Des Moines will be a first for others, including freshmen Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa.
“They talk about it all the time,” Oturu said of the veterans. “How they’re so hungry to get back.”
Coffey, Murphy and McBrayer combined for 48 points in the 81-72 loss to the Blue Raiders. Eric Curry had 11 points off bench, but he is out for the rest of this season because of a foot injury.
Murphy said a lesson from that game was how quickly a game’s momentum can change. The Gophers jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but the Blue Raiders led 37-31 at halftime. MTSU’s 15-4 second-half run stretched out to what became an insurmountable 17-point advantage.
“It’s a game of runs,” Murphy said. “That’s the biggest thing I take away from our last NCAA tournament game. We had a run in the beginning of the game, but we couldn’t answer any of Middle Tennessee’s runs. That’s the biggest thing. We have to take a run and get on a run.”
McBrayer and Murphy were sophomores then, and Coffey, Curry and Michael Hurt were freshmen. Murphy believes experience is just one area, though, where the 2019 team is better than the last NCAA tournament team. He feels these Gophers have what it takes to advance into the round of 32 for the first time since 2013.
“We’ve got guys who have been there this time around and guys who are more composed,” Murphy said. “We’ve got people who can make plays down the stretch. I think we have more healthy players now than we did back then. ... We’re a lot better.”