The Gophers men’s basketball team was ranked No. 14 in the most recent Associated Press poll. That figures to go down a little after the loss earlier in the week at Nebraska, but the Gophers have been ranked all season.
They have been branded as “good,” and for good reason after returning plenty of talented players (and adding some more) from last year’s NCAA tournament team.
That said, because the Gophers have already been told they are good, this year also presents a different challenge for players and particularly head coach Richard Pitino. Countless teams in countless sports, both locally and nationally, have struggled through an adjustment period in the season following unexpected success.
In advance of another key December game at Arkansas on Saturday, Pitino talked Friday about making sure his players know the difference between perception and reality.
“People are telling us we’re good. So the illusion of people telling us that we’re good should not mean that we’re good,” Pitino said. “We can’t fall into the trap of the illusion that just because people tell us we’re going to beat Miami at home because it’s a great atmosphere. That’s not really why you’re going to win. So it is a challenge. I found it a lot easier when people told us we were going to stink to get everyone to band together.”
Pitino referenced last season, when the Gophers were barely ranked all year but wound up with the No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Everyone told us we stunk last year, and we weren’t ranked,” he said. “Rankings are great for fans, but in my ideal world it would almost be like the college football playoff. Don’t unveil rankings until like late January. … We have games to play, and we have to get better.”
Believing their own hype was far from the only reason the Gophers struggled in that loss at Nebraska. There were some questionable calls. It was a tough environment.
“The biggest thing they have to understand, and it’s so early, but when the elements hit you — crowd gets into it, a call you don’t like — that’s when you have to get stronger, tougher, better together,” Pitino said. “That’s where I thought (Thursday’s) practice was really good.”
As for the broader message of not believing their own hype? It sounds like the players are hearing that, too.
“We just have to take the mindset of not thinking teams are going to roll over for us just because we have a top-25 ranking,” big man Reggie Lynch said. “We need to flush that down the toilet and understand every team is going to try to come at us this year because we have that number in front of us. There aren’t going to be easy games throughout the season.”