How do you figure this Gophers basketball team out?
They lost 62-49 at home on Feb. 19 to Illinois, which had lost 11 of 12 games and was next to last in the conference at the time, ahead of only Penn State. They lost 55-54 at home on Feb. 1 to Northwestern, which is only 12-16 this season.
But on the other hand, they beat then-No. 11 rated Ohio State 63-53 on Jan. 16, then-No. 9 Wisconsin 81-68 on Jan. 22 and defeated No. 20 Iowa 95-89 on Tuesday.
And they have a coach in Richard Pitino, who has done a great job, but won’t even talk about the possibility of his team making the NCAA tournament.
“We never talk about the NCAA tournament, ever, ever,” said Pitino after beating the Hawkeyes. “We are happy with where we’re at. We were picked at the bottom of the league [in the preseason], bottom of the league, 10th, 11th, 12th. We believe in what we’re doing.
“We’ve had some games that haven’t been great and we’ve had some games that have been great. [Tuesday] was a great one. That doesn’t mean that Saturday [at No. 16 Michigan] is going to be great, but we never, ever talk about the NCAA tournament. I didn’t take this job to make the NCAA tournament our goal. I hope we make it, but if we don’t, I’m not looking at this as an unsuccessful season. I’m proud of what they’ve shown so far.”
Pitino was then asked what has made this season a success, and if that’s something he considers quantifiable this early in his tenure as Gophers coach.
“That’s a hard question, and I’d like to answer it,” he said. “I think this is a process, and I love the kids that we have. They work hard, they have great attitudes. I don’t have any expectations. My expectations were to play great [Tuesday and] we did. My expectations are [Wednesday] to get better as a team, learn from the mistakes that we made, hopefully we do that and we continue to move from there. But I don’t have any long-term expectations.”
Mathieu at his best
No doubt point guard DeAndre Mathieu has become the darling of Williams Arena fans, with crowds coming close to capacity because of his popularity. The 5-9 junior sparked the victory over Iowa with 19 points and seven assists in 30 minutes and making other big plays against the Hawkeyes.
“[Mathieu] was tremendous, probably because Austin [Hollins] and Charles [Buggs] played really well [it might get overlooked],” Pitino said. “That was maybe one of his best games: seven assists, one turnover, 19 points, controlled the game, [Iowa] trapped his pick-and-rolls, not sure if anyone noticed but they did, and he did a great job of handling it. He really controlled the game, gave us a lot of confidence. He was tremendous.”
After losing 64-46 at Ohio State on Saturday and giving up 46 points in the second half against the Buckeyes, nobody expected a victory over Iowa, but Pitino said his players were really positive even after back-to-back losses.
“They came into the Ohio State game eager to win, they hate losing, they’re really good kids, really easy to coach,” Pitino said. “I think we all felt like we [had] a great game coming. We beat Northwestern [54-48 on Feb. 16] but we didn’t really play well offensively. I think they all are prideful kids, positive kids, there are no negative kids on this team, and I think they all believed they were going to play well eventually.”
Pitino was asked how his team can play so well against a nationally ranked team such as Iowa while losing a game at seemingly down-and-out Illinois.
“That’s the frustrating part of our team so far [this season],” he said. “We’ve played very well against some very good teams, and we didn’t play well vs. Illinois. But we’ve moved past Illinois and now we’re moving forward with this win.”
Does that sort of inconsistency drive a coach crazy?
“Yeah, we kind of do a lot of things that will get you going a little bit, but tonight was a great win for us,” Pitino said. “We handled our business and beat a very good Iowa team.”
Buggs’ big game