The Gophers’ men’s basketball game at Wisconsin on Thursday will be the team’s third in the Big Ten, even though it has been almost one month since the Gophers played their second conference game, a 85-78 victory over Nebraska on December 5.
The Badgers have won eight in a row in the series and will be a big test for Richard Pitino’s squad.
The Gophers (11-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) haven’t won in Madison since a 78-74 overtime victory on Jan. 15, 2009. The Badgers (10-3, 2-0) dropped to No. 22 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week after losing to Western Kentucky 83-76 on Saturday. The Badgers were led by Maple Grove’s Brad Davison, who scored 26 points.
This is the first year the Big Ten has played a 20-game conference schedule. Pitino said breaking up the schedule into two conference games early in the season and 18 leagues games starting this month isn’t ideal.
“I don’t love it, but as long as everybody else is doing it and it’s a level playing field, I am OK with it,” he said. “The problem is [if you don’t split up the Big Ten games], you’re probably doing away with Christmas [break] and doing away with being able to send your kids home and doing some games on the 27th [of December]. So that’s the alternative, but I would rather do that.
“I just think we’re all trying to beef up our nonconference [schedule], which if you look at ours, we have done that.”
The Gophers had an eight-day break between games with North Carolina AT&T (Dec. 21) and Mount St. Mary’s (Dec. 30), meaning the players could get a holiday break. But it’s not ideal for the Gophers to restart their Big Ten schedule now after losing to Ohio State and beating Nebraska in the first week of December.
Jordan, Coffey to lead
While the Gophers hope sophomore forward Eric Curry — who played 17 minutes Sunday and had four points and six rebounds against Mount St. Mary’s in his first action since March of 2017 — can remain healthy for the rest of the season and they keep getting production out of freshmen such as guard Gabe Kalscheur (10.4 points per game) and center Daniel Oturu (10.8 points, 8.1 rebounds), there is no doubt junior guard Amir Coffey and senior forward Jordan Murphy must lead the Gophers through the conference schedule.
Pitino said he refuses to label Coffey, who is averaging 15.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists, as his point guard. He believes Coffey is the most versatile player on the team.
“It doesn’t matter where he is on the court,” Pitino said. “We put him in certain positions to help us win and we’ll continue to do that. I don’t really look at it where it’s like football and there’s a quarterback. We want guys who can play multiple positions.”
Murphy meanwhile, has collected a school-record 54 double-doubles. The 6-7 senior has made an All-Big Ten team the past two seasons and going into last season, he was a top-10 candidate for the Karl Malone Award, given to the best power forward in college basketball.
Murphy averaged 16.8 points and 11.3 rebounds last year as the injury-ravaged Gophers went 15-17 (4-14 Big Ten), but Pitino said he has learned that winning is just as important as stats when it comes to his reputation as a player around the country. That could be big for Murphy, who will be trying to make an NBA roster next season.
“I have told him that he is definitely one of the most underappreciated players out there, but no one cares unless you win,” Pitino said. “It does not matter. Even last year with all of our injuries and Reggie [Lynch’s] situation, nobody cares. They are not going to feel sorry for you. It is either you win or you lose.
“For Jordan Murphy, who has had a phenomenal career, he has been here three years and his first year we didn’t win a lot, second year we won a lot, third year we were decimated by injuries. If he bounces back and we win, everybody will appreciate him nationally. It’s even more of an incentive besides just wanting to win because we’re competing. You’ll get more recognition if you win.”
Pitino said he thinks Murphy, who is averaging 15.7 points and 12.6 rebounds this season, will get his NBA shot.
“There is a chance. There are guys like him in the league, especially as [teams] go positionless and get a little smaller,” he said. “He produces, he rebounds, he’s tough, he plays hard, so I want him on my team if I’m in the NBA.”
Baldelli stays focused
When the Twins hired new manager Rocco Baldelli in October, there was a big belief he was brought in to have a much closer relationship with front office bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine.
That might still prove to be the case once the season starts, but one thing Baldelli is happy to let Falvey and Levine run with is free agency.
So far this offseason, the Twins’ biggest splashes have been bringing in first baseman C.J. Cron, who Baldelli worked with last season with the Rays, second baseman Jonathan Schoop from Baltimore and free-agent DH/outfielder Nelson Cruz. Acquiring Cruz last week was a big move.
“I think it’s fair to say that the only responsible thing to do is just always be on the lookout for players that can fit you,” Baldelli said. “Those are areas where there could be fits in some situations, but as the manager of this team, this is not where I like to focus a ton of my attention. Derek and Thad have to look into all things that are going on and valuable players and player acquisitions and things like that.”
Baldelli said he is definitely brought into free-agent discussions, but said the main focus for himself and his coaching staff is on whoever is on the roster.
“I am aware of those conversations and I’m a small part of those conversations, but I like to spend most of my time on the players that we have,” he said. “I mean that. That’s where my attention and where our staff’s attention has to lay. Spending time worrying about the guys we have, what we can do for them, communicating with them and talking about what we can do for them going forward, these are the things that demand all of our time.”
One thing Baldelli continues to believe is that the roster he inherited from a 78-84 team in 2018 can compete immediately, even without any more big moves.
He thinks getting improved performances out of players such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco can have as big an impact as any free agent available.
“This is certainly the type of situation where, if we can help our guys really make small adjustments and take the next step in their career in a small way, we are going to benefit in a huge way if we can do that,” Baldelli said.