When Richard Pitino landed three Minnesota players in the Gophers' heralded 2018 basketball recruiting class, Gabe Kalscheur was the most underrated.

Now, Kalscheur is arguably the most important.

Known as mostly a three-point shooter out of DeLaSalle, Kalscheur has become much more than that in his three years. Teammates refer to him as the heart and soul of the Gophers program.

Trudging along through a lengthy shooting slump this season, the soft-spoken, 6-4 junior guard defends the opposing team's best guard. He never complains. Never backs down. Never lets his teammates see him stop working.

"Gabe's had an impact on everybody," senior Brandon Johnson said. "He puts his heart and soul into the game. That spirit goes into everybody else on the team. That motivates us. … Gabe is the factor for us to get up every day and do what we do."

Pitino and the Gophers believe Kalscheur has a lot more to give, too.

The Gophers (13-7, 6-7 Big Ten), who play Sunday at Maryland, have seen only glimpses this season of the player who became the biggest surprise of the 2018 class, turning into one of the top shooters as well as defenders in the Big Ten.

On Thursday, Kalscheur's star shined bright again. His 16 points on 4-for-7 shooting from three-point range, eight rebounds and clutch free throws were crucial in a much-needed 71-68 win against No. 25 Purdue at Williams Arena.

"I was still confident," Kalscheur said. "But it was weighing down on me a little bit overthinking what's going on with [shooting] mechanics and things like that. There were a lot of things on my mind that was just too much. So, I just tried to simplify it. Not thinking too much."

Last one standing

Daniel Oturu was Pitino's biggest get in the 2018 recruiting class and departed early for the NBA. Reserve Jarvis Omersa stepped away from the program in December.

From one of the most Minnesota-laden Gophers classes in decades, Kalscheur is the last one standing, carrying the torch for that group.

"I'm here," Kalscheur said. "I'm still kicking it for my class, for my city and for myself."

Kalscheur, Omersa and Oturu dreamed about leading the Gophers to a Big Ten title when they signed as high schoolers three years ago.

Their paths eventually went in different directions.

After an All-America sophomore season last year, the 6-10 Oturu made Cretin-Derham Hall and his hometown proud by becoming the first U player picked in the NBA draft since 2004. Omersa's playing time diminished this season, and the former Orono forward opted out for personal reasons relating to the pandemic on Dec. 20.

"I was happy for Dan when he made his decision and excited for where he's at right now," Kalscheur said. "Jarvis, I understand where he's coming from. I respect his decision to opt out for his family and the things going on with him."

The Gophers' 2018 class will always have that special moment when they played together in the NCAA tournament as freshmen.

A meme of Kalscheur strumming an air guitar still exists from the U's first NCAA tournament win in six years in March 2019. He had 24 points and made five threes in that first-round game against Louisville in Des Moines.

But that performance raised expectations for fans, and Kalscheur has had a hard time replicating it. A Los Angeles Clippers rookie this season, Oturu checked in with Kalscheur to make sure his former teammate wasn't getting discouraged, reminding him there are a lot of people who still believe in his ability.

"Gabe is a terrific player," Oturu said last month. "I know he's struggled a little bit from three. But he brings so much more to the table. Being able to guard the other team's best player. That's one thing he's been doing for a long time at such a high level. I definitely know sooner or later he'll start knocking down threes as well. That's going to make the Gophers even more dangerous."

'Stop worrying if you miss'

Oturu hasn't been the only one in Kalscheur's ear.

Teammates told him to keep shooting Monday when he missed his first five threes against Nebraska. He finally hit one in the second half and finished with 10 points in a 79-61 victory that ended a three-game losing streak.

It's been a subject of debate for college basketball analysts covering the Gophers this season. "What happened to Kalscheur's three-point shooting stroke?" He has gone from 41% as a freshman to 34% as a sophomore to 25% this season. It's not that he's taking many bad shots.

In both of his first two seasons, Kalscheur had 13 games with at least three three-pointers and five with at least four. He has just three games with at least three made threes this season, and his four Thursday were a season high.

But Kalscheur is attacking the basket. He's already made more free throws (47) than last season (31) and has raised his free-throw percentage from 70.5 to 85.5.

Pitino understands how important Kalscheur is to the Gophers' success, regardless of whether the jump shot is falling. And that trust never wavered.

"This year is not going the way you thought it would go," Pitino told Kalscheur. "You're an awesome human being. And whenever you're done playing basketball, you're going to be extremely successful in life. That's the most important thing. You're about the right things. You work your butt off every single day. There's never an issue with you. Everybody is proud of you. Stop worrying if you miss a shot."

That talk with Pitino resonated with Kalscheur against Nebraska to "just play free," he said. "I feel like I was in a better mind frame in the game. A lot more confident."

A more confident Kalscheur buoyed wins vs. Nebraska and Purdue. And the Gophers could use not only his leadership but his jumper to finish strong with seven regular-season games left, starting Sunday.