When Richard Pitino took his players off Twitter for the season he was trying to escape some of the hype surrounding his Gophers basketball team.
It’s been so hard to ignore.
As much as Pitino tells his guys not to focus on the attention, he knows they take great pride in being one of the top teams in the country.
“We’ve talked a lot this offseason about how to deal with expectations and how to deal with people talking about you good,” Pitino said. “You could say that stuff is irrelevant, but they want it. They want to be ranked. They want people to talk about them. That’s what motivates them.”
All of that praise can vanish as quickly as it came.
No. 25 Alabama on Saturday will be the first of back-to-back ranked opponents on Minnesota’s schedule, including Wednesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against No. 11 Miami (Fla.) at Williams Arena.
The next six games will reveal a lot about whether the Gophers should really be an early potential Final Four or Big title contender, as some national observers projected.
Not only do the Gophers play two Top 25 nonconference opponents, but they also open Big Ten play for the first time in early December with games against Rutgers and Nebraska. Their road trip to Lincoln, Neb., on Dec. 5 is followed by a game at Arkansas on Dec. 9.
This could be the most grueling late November and early December stretch Pitino’s program has ever faced, especially with Big Ten games sandwiched between some intriguing nonconference matchups.
“The schedule grows as your program grows,” Pitino said. “To play two true road games is very, very difficult [at Providence and at Arkansas]. Obviously, with the change in the schedule playing at Nebraska, it still feels like the nonconference. So you’re playing three true road games before Christmas. Fortunately we have an older team.”
Now is the right time for the Gophers to play a schedule like this. Minnesota has a veteran team that should be ready for the challenge.
Junior forward Jordan Murphy, who averages 23.8 points and 12.2 rebounds, has played himself into early Big Ten player of the year discussions. Point guard Nate Mason and center Reggie Lynch give the Gophers two seniors who are arguably the best at their position in the conference.
Sophomore guard Amir Coffey is the Gophers player who could attract the most attention from NBA scouts this weekend. But freshman guard Isaiah Washington has a huge following in New York City with his Jelly Fam movement and status as the state’s prep player of the year last season.
Murphy knows there are bigger games ahead, but first he hopes the Gophers don’t look past Massachusetts on Friday.
“Watching college basketball in general you’ve seen a lot of upsets,” Murphy said. “We’ve seen a lot of people who lost to teams and may be close to some teams that may not be on the same level. So we’ve basically said, ‘We can’t overlook anybody.’ ”