If there was any question about coach Richard Pitino’s future with the Gophers, it was put to rest Thursday in a resounding 86-76 victory over Louisville in the NCAA basketball tournament.
The Gophers were as confident and dominant as they have been all season.
They have now won five of their past seven games, and it wasn’t just junior guard Amir Coffey and senior forward Jordan Murphy carrying the load.
Freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur led the team with 24 points, one short of his career best, and a career-high eight rebounds.
Murphy and Coffey each finished with 18 points and six rebounds. Freshman center Daniel Oturu had 13 points and six rebounds, and senior guard Dupree McBrayer had 13 points and four assists.
All five starters were in double figures and played all but 18 of the available minutes. The Gophers hit 11 of 27 three-pointers, their second-highest total this season.
More important, they committed a season-low five turnovers.
“We were confident,” Pitino told ESPN after the game. “We got good looks. Gabe, when he gets going like that, he is really, really good. Amir hit a couple, Murphy hit a couple — he can do that as well. We just took what the defense gives you. That’s the way, when you’re playing in these tournament settings, you have to adjust throughout the course of the game and our guys were really, really confident for 40 minutes.”
There is no question Michigan State didn’t want to face a Big Ten Conference opponent in the second round of the tournament after earning a No. 2 seed in the East Region. But that’s exactly what will happen after the Gophers won and Michigan State survived an upset bid before beating No. 15 seed Bradley 76-65.
Coach Tom Izzo said he knows the Gophers squad the Spartans will face at 6:45 p.m. Saturday is much different from the team that lost 79-55 in East Lansing on Feb. 9.
The Gophers never had a chance in that game. Coffey was held to four points in 29 minutes, and Murphy had five points in 30 minutes.
That has been the story in the recent history of the two squads. Since 2000, Izzo holds a 27-7 record (excluding vacated seasons) against the Gophers. And since Pitino became Gophers coach in 2013, he has gone 2-6 against the Spartans.
Pitino was asked what has changed for the Gophers over the past few weeks.
“You know, I just think getting better,” Pitino said. “We play in such a tough league. The Big Ten is a really good conference, and those wins, they snowball a little bit and you start getting confidence. You go and beat a Purdue at home, you beat Penn State, who was playing great, Purdue again. These guys are feeling good about themselves. Now the biggest thing is getting rest.”
The Spartans, meanwhile, looked rusty against Bradley and trailed 55-54 with 7:05 remaining. Still, they were the Big Ten’s most dominant team for most of the regular season and won the league tournament by beating rival Michigan 65-60 in the final in Chicago.
They did have a lapse in the middle of the season after star guard Joshua Langford was lost for the season because of a foot injury. They lost three consecutive games, including a 79-75 overtime defeat to Indiana at home and a 79-74 loss at Illinois.
There’s no doubt the Spartans will be favored Saturday, but with the game being played in Des Moines — less than four hours from the Gophers campus — there’s a good chance a large contingent of Maroon and Gold fans will make the trip with a Sweet 16 appearance on the line.
The Vikings front office has manipulated the salary cap as much as possible to create space to re-sign the top players and also have room for free agents and signing draft choices going forward. According to spotrac.com, they still have $5.5 million in salary cap space.
The only way the Vikings were able to accomplish this was with the talents of Rob Brzezinski, the executive VP of football operations.
General Manager Rick Spielman said that combining the financial side of football operations with the player development side has been hugely important.
“Rob is incredible, the job and what he does with our cap and how we manipulate it,” Spielman said. “He understands what we’re trying to do and accomplish. He is part of the process. As we go through this and we do this move, what are the domino effects? We have a great working relationship.”
The Vikings have seen a number of free agents leave over the past few weeks. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson signed a three-year, $37 million deal with the Browns. Center Nick Easton and running back Latavius Murray signed with the Saints, Easton for four years and $24 million and Murray for four years and $14.4 million. Strong safety Andrew Sendejo signed with the Eagles and guard Tom Compton with the Jets, both one-year deals.
O-line being reshaped
The biggest question is what the Vikings are going to do with the offensive line and how the departures of Compton and Easton will affect those positions.
They made their first big move to answer that question by signing veteran guard Josh Kline (three years, $15.75 million) away from the Titans earlier this week.
Spielman said the team will continue to try to navigate the free-agent market but said fans need to understand the process will last into training camp this summer.
“We’re continuing to monitor the market. We’re going to be patient,” he said. “There are specific things, once Kevin Stefanski was named offensive coordinator and bringing in [assistant head coach Gary] Kubiak and [offensive line coach and run game coordinator] Rick Dennison, you know we have an idea of what type of offense we’re going to run and the traits we’re looking for in offensive linemen. We’re going to be very selective.
“We want to make sure we’re bringing in the guys with those physical traits to be able to do what this offense is going to require them to do.”
The NFL draft is coming up April 25-27, and according to cbssports.com 32 of the top 200 players in the draft are offensive linemen. The Vikings have five picks in the top 200, including Nos. 18, 50 and 81 in each of the first three rounds.
“It’s a very deep draft class,” Spielman said. “I am sitting here now working through some things and getting reports done and once we get together in April after the pro days and what we were able to see in the Senior Bowl, and what we were able to do in the combine, we’ll come up with a [ranking]. It is a deep draft. You can get quality throughout the draft on the offensive line.”