CHICAGO – Richard Pitino kept his players focused this week on what they needed to do in the Big Ten tournament to help the Gophers have the chance to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
The Gophers were far from ready Saturday to stop one of the juggernauts in college basketball from showing it’s a contender for the Final Four in Minneapolis.
But the mission was accomplished.
Pitino’s team already achieved its main goal in Chicago with a couple of quality wins. Meanwhile, No. 10 Michigan showed it was playing for something bigger in a 76-49 throttling of Minnesota in the tournament semifinals at the United Center.
“You could just tell we totally ran out of gas,” Pitino said. “But we were sitting here coming into this tournament with having to do some things to make an NCAA tournament, which hasn’t happened a lot in our school history. They did that under the most adverse circumstances and the most pressure.”
The third-seeded Wolverines (28-5), who will face top-seeded Michigan State for a shot at their third straight conference tourney title, had a 19-point halftime lead after shooting 57 percent in the first half.
In wins against Penn State and Purdue, the Gophers (21-13) were able to rely on their defense, but they took a big step back in that area Saturday. Michigan shot 15-for-20 on layups and shot 10-for-26 from three-point range.
Gabe Kalscheur’s three-pointer tied it 13-13 just under 11 minutes left in the first half, but Isaiah Livers’ three-pointer sparked a 25-6 run, including 12 straight points during a five-minute stretch. Zavier Simpson raced down the court to beat the buzzer with a layup that made it 38-19 at halftime.
In the second half, Livers nailed another three and followed with a three-point play to extend it to 56-30. The lead grew to 35 points before both benches got some rare action. Livers’ career-high 21 points and a combined 28 points from Iggy Brazdeikis and Simpson helped the Wolverines blow out the Gophers, after winning by a combined 10 points in two previous meetings this year.
Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey will be a dangerous tandem for any opponent in the NCAA tournament, but they were humbled against arguably the nation’s top defensive team Saturday. Murphy, who had 27 points in Friday’s 75-73 win vs. Purdue, was held to 10 points. Coffey’s streak of five straight 20-point games came to an end with 14 points on 7-for-12 shooting.
The big question for the Gophers moving forward is whether they played well enough earlier in Chicago to carry some confidence into their first NCAA tourney since 2017.
“The main thing we can use during this run is being tough down the stretch and come out to throw the first punch,” Murphy said. “That’s the main thing we did throughout our wins this week.”
Pitino didn’t enter this season with high expectations nationally. The Gophers were projected to finish ninth in the unofficial Big Ten media poll. Preseason college hoops annuals had the U as low as 12th in Big Ten predictions, coming off a 15-17 season.
Going 10-1 in nonconference with four wins against major conference opponents, including Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington, and winning at Wisconsin for the first time since 2009 were early highlights.
Minnesota ended up seventh in the Big Ten with a 9-11 record after suffering seven losses in its final 10 regular-season games. Still, a Senior Night court-storming victory over No. 11 Purdue brought a spectacular end to the home schedule.
Nearly finishing .500 in conference play in the first year with a 20-game league schedule was nothing to dismiss in the Big Ten’s strongest year from top to bottom in recent memory.
“People said we shouldn’t have made it this far,” said senior captain Dupree McBrayer, who lost his mother to cancer in December. “The goal was always to make the tournament. We started to have some doubt losing some games we shouldn’t have, but we just regrouped.”
The talk went from Pitino being on the hot seat to whether he could win the program’s first NCAA game since Tubby Smith’s last season in 2013.
Bracket experts have Minnesota projected as high as a No. 8 seed (Jerry Palm) but more realistically a No. 9 seed (Joe Lunardi). Either way, there’s a potential matchup in the second round with a No. 1 seed.
There’s been a significant shift in the perception of Gophers basketball in the past month, but making noise next week will go a long way toward building momentum for the future.
“I don’t want them to be satisfied, but I want them to take a step back,” Pitino said after Saturday’s ugly loss. “As disappointed as I am with this, I’m really proud of the guys that they were able to move this program forward.”