Akeem Springs was hobbling away on crutches from the Gophers’ NCAA tournament pep rally Sunday when he was stopped by fans.
One man pointed and said, “He’s not afraid to shoot.”
Springs laughed. There hadn’t been much to smile about for the Gophers senior captain since suffering a torn right Achilles’ tendon injury late in Friday’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal win against Michigan State in Washington, D.C.
His college career was over. He wasn’t able to help his team try to make a run to the conference tourney championship. He wouldn’t get to play in the NCAA tournament, either. Another emotional blow came on Selection Sunday, when Springs saw the fifth-seeded Gophers were being sent to Milwaukee, his second home.
Springs, a 6-foot-4 guard, spent three years at Wisconsin-Milwaukee before deciding to leave as a graduate transfer following his junior season after coach Rob Jeter was fired.
“That’s what stings the most,” Springs said Sunday. “That was my goal coming in. I always said from Day 1, I wanted to go to the [NCAA] tournament and play in Milwaukee. So that stung a little bit.”
But Springs said it would still be exciting to go back and see friends. He already received text messages from people asking him for tickets to Thursday’s game against 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee at the Bradley Center.
Springs is the only player on the Gophers roster who had been to the NCAA tournament before. He was an ineligible redshirt sophomore sitting out due to transfer rules when Wisconsin-Milwaukee lost to Villanova in 2014.
“Enjoy the moment,” Springs said about what he’s telling his teammates. “Soak it all in. It’s going to be a great experience. They’ll see it’s going to be a lot of fun. Sometimes you try to tell guys to stay composed. But in March Madness, I think it’s the excitement and everything that takes everyone’s game to the next level. I want them to embrace the moment and go have fun.”
The Gophers didn’t look like they enjoyed playing without Springs in Saturday’s loss to Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals. They missed his energy, on-court leadership and timely outside shooting.
Springs, who averaged 9.6 points per game, led the Gophers with 65 three-pointers during the regular season. He hit several clutch shots, including the game-winner against Indiana on Feb. 15.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino gave sophomore Dupree McBrayer the starting spot in place of Springs. But Pitino said Sunday he needs to prepare freshman Michael Hurt, sophomore Ahmad Gilbert and sophomore walk-on Stephon Sharp to provide depth on the perimeter. McBrayer and junior guard Nate Mason played all 40 minutes Saturday. Fellow starting guard Amir Coffey played 39.
“It’s a challenge, because we haven’t had great depth at the guard spot,” Pitino said. “We’ll have to really work the next three days, obviously to prepare for Middle Tennessee, but also prepare for the way we’re going to play. Because Akeem was a starter. Akeem was playing 27 minutes. It’s hard to adjust on the fly.”
Springs said he would wait until after the season to have surgery on his Achilles. He appreciated the team giving him a standing ovation on the plane ride home from D.C. He knows the Gophers will want to earn an NCAA tournament victory for him Thursday.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” Springs said. “As we’re closing this chapter, that’ll be our trophy. We’ve got a great seed. We got a great place. We got a great team we’re playing. It will be great to see all our hard work pay off.”