Richard Pitino is gushing about freshmen and scheduling tough opponents in November. He’s in danger of getting kicked out of the college coaching fraternity.
The Gophers’ basketball coach, after watching his team beat Omaha 104-76 on Tuesday, didn’t play the usual semantic games. He acted like a fan instead of a taskmaster. In a program and an athletic department in desperate need of ticket sales and financial success, Pitino isn’t shying away from expectations.
He admitted he likes his team and loves his freshmen. A jaded fan base might want to take him at his word.
“I’m about as excited as I’ve been in a long time,” he said.
You could see why Tuesday. Not because of the quality of opponent, but because of the Gophers’ evident talent.
Jordan Murphy is one of the best players in America. If he played for a more high-profile program, he’d be a big man on cable instead of just a big man on campus.
Junior Amir Coffey, a classic small forward by body type and athletic ability, played point guard, and often made it look easy, using his long arms to pass over the defense and finish at the rim. He finished with a game-best plus-31 rating.
Senior guard DuPree McBrayer is healthy again and made five of six three-point shots. He had the team’s second-best plus-minus rating at 29.
But on opening night of the regular season, the freshmen were the draw.
• Center Daniel Oturu produced eight rebounds and made five of his seven shots. He is a physical force.
• Guard Gabe Kalscheur was the only starter to play fewer than 22 minutes, and Pitino admitted that occurred because he thinks of Kalscheur as a veteran who doesn’t need early-season minutes. Kalscheur can shoot and defend the perimeter.
• Forward Jarvis Omersa might be the best pure athlete on an athletic team, and his second-half dunks rewarded those who stayed until the end of the blowout.
The Cretin-Derham Hall, DeLaSalle and Orono products look physically and emotionally prepared for college basketball.
“They came from good programs,” McBrayer said. “They’re ready.”
The Gophers have size to go with their athletic ability. Matz Stockman, the 7-foot center, backs up Oturu. He produced nine points and five rebounds in 16 minutes.
But the most intriguing bench player is Isaiah Washington, the sophomore who probably should be starting at point guard by now, but for the near future will have to settle for a microwave role off the bench.
The offense seemed to lose direction when he entered the game early in the first half, but by the second half he was leading the break and throwing alley-oops. He finished with 11 assists in 24 minutes.
“The good thing is if you have good players, they put you in a bind,” Pitino said. “What do you do with Isaiah? If Isaiah is going to play that way, he’s got to play. Those are good problems to have.”
Eric Curry will miss another five weeks or so because of a swollen knee, which is both bad omen and on-court hardship. He could be an exceptional player and would give the Gophers a veteran starting lineup.
The Gophers might have the depth to survive without Curry for the short term, but neither this team nor Pitino’s tenure can survive another series of disastrous events.
On opening night, against perhaps the only cupcake on the early schedule, Pitino could be forgiven for feeling his program might be breaking through.
He has veteran talent and youthful promise, and past doesn’t have to be prologue — or at least that’s what Gophers fans tell themselves in November.
The Gophers will play Utah on Monday. Fans will see a quality opponent on The Barn’s new floor, one not scuffed by the past.
You could hear the excitement in Pitino’s voice, as he strained against the bonds of traditional coachspeak.
“Our young guys are clearly very talented,” he said. “It’s a matter of playing with substance.”