There simply cannot be a more surprising team in college basketball than Richard Pitino’s Gophers, who went on the road and defeated No. 24 Maryland 89-75 in College Park, improving to 21-7 in the process and 9-6 in Big Ten Conference play, tied for fourth place with three games remaining. It was also their sixth consecutive conference victory.

To think that in March last year, many sportswriters and fans thought Pitino should be fired. The team had the worst season in the program’s 120-year history, an 8-23 overall record and 2-16 conference mark that included a 14-game losing streak. And going into this season, the team was losing four of its top six scorers — 51.9 percent of the offense.

Pitino’s $7 million buyout was viewed as one of the few reasons he kept his job, and also regarded as one of the biggest mistakes the Gophers made when signing his contract. It even led to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents issuing a proposal that would require the university president and athletic director to need their approval for the Gophers’ highest-paying coaches contracts.

That’s how bad things were.

So how in the world did Pitino so drastically turn things around? It’s all because of young players getting better, a freshman sensation and two key transfers playing big roles this season.

Assembling roster

The Gophers are basically going with eight players in most games: Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, Akeem Springs, Reggie Lynch, Eric Curry and Bakary Konate.

Half of those eight — Mason, Murphy, McBrayer and Konate — saw meaningful minutes last season.

Mason has increased his points per game from 13.8 to 15.1 this season, his rebounds from 2.8 to 3.4, and his assists from 4.5 to 5.3 per game.

Murphy has seen his points go down from 11.6 to 10.8, but his field-goal percentage has jumped from 46.1 to 48.7 and his rebounds are up from 8.0 to 8.5.

McBrayer — who came off the bench Wednesday and dominated with 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting, including 3-for-4 on three three-pointers — has had the biggest scoring increase, climbing from 5.9 points per game last season to 10.7 this season.

Transfers contribute

While the Gophers have gotten great contributions from those returning players, there’s no doubt that a big part of the team’s drastic improvement comes from two tremendous transfers in Lynch and Springs.

Springs’ play this season has been huge, especially in conference play, where he has averaged 10.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while logging 26.6 minutes first as a reserve, now as a starter.

Springs came from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds his redshirt junior season. As a redshirt senior this season, Springs didn’t have to sit out a transfer year and could play right away.

He also was a quarterback in high school football, and has said that role gave him confidence to be a leader. The Gophers noticed, naming him a captain for his one and only year on the squad.

The 6-10 Lynch, the Edina native and Illinois State transfer, has proved to be the big difference-maker inside, something the Gophers desperately needed.

He is second on the team in rebounds at 6.4 per game but has truly dominated as a shot blocker with 84, over three per contest. He’s tied for third in the nation in blocks per game and is another first-year player to be named a captain.

Against Maryland he showed his versatility with four points on 2-for-2 shooting, five rebounds, four blocks and one steal. He did have four fouls, which has been his big Achilles’ heel.

Impressive freshmen

And lastly there is the play of Coffey, who not only has elevated the Gophers to another level but has also influenced the recruiting of local players with his decision to commit to the U.

Coffey hasn’t disappointed, averaging 12.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He has only gotten better in conference play, averaging 12.6 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

Curry, meanwhile, also continues to be a solid contributor as a freshman, with 5.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

The big reason for optimism not only this season but in the future is that Pitino continues to recruit standout players and the current squad is still young. Of the primary eight contributors, only Springs will be gone next season.

That’s all it took to turn one of the worst teams in Gophers history into one of their best: four young players all getting better, two transfers making immediate impacts and two freshmen playing like veterans. What an amazing turnaround.

Jottings

• If you want an indication of how the genius East Coast reporters covered the NBA trade deadline, look no further than their reports that had the Timberwolves sending point guard Ricky Rubio to the Knicks for an aging, often injured Derrick Rose. Rose gets far fewer assists and steals, is two years older and is a free agent after this season. There are a number of reasons to trade Rubio if the Wolves could get comparable value in return, but this rumor never had any merit.

• Gophers track and field coach Steve Plasencia has been named head coach for the U.S. junior men’s team at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships on March 26 in Kampala, Uganda. Joining Plasencia on the squad will be Gophers freshman and Minneapolis native Hamza Ali, who has been a standout at the U. Ali won the Twin Cities 5K last October and earned a spot on the junior squad by placing third at the USATF Cross Country Championship earlier this month.

• You wonder if P.J. Fleck will reward Gophers junior linebacker Blake Cashman with a scholarship, after the former Eden Prairie star led the team with 7½ sacks and also recorded 45 tackles last season.

• As the Gophers hockey team gets ready to face Wisconsin this weekend, senior captain Justin Kloos is currently tied with Jordan Leopold for 32nd in team history in career scoring (61 goals, 144 points). Kloos had three points in the Gophers’ sweep of Penn State last weekend and is second on the team with 37 points, trailing only Tyler Sheehy’s 46. Kloos will be an undrafted free agent following this season and can sign with any NHL team.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com