DES MOINES – Getting into the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years helped Richard Pitino meet the expectations that the sixth-year Gophers coach, fans and the administration had for his basketball team this season.
Saturday’s second-round loss to Michigan State and the untimely injury to forward Jordan Murphy was a bittersweet ending to the season — and a historic career for Murphy.
The All-Big Ten forward and fellow senior captain Dupree McBrayer left the Gophers in a much better place than when they were freshmen. Winning the U’s first NCAA tourney game in six years set a new standard for the program.
“I’m really, really proud of what our guys did this year; it’s the second time we’ve won a tournament game in 29 years,” Pitino said. “Excited about these guys moving forward.”
Two years ago, Pitino had a 16-game turnaround to make the NCAA tourney. His 22-14 record this year was a seven-win improvement, but can the program avoid another drop-off? The next step for the Gophers is making a habit of success and winning in the NCAA tournament.
“At the end of the day, winning is what sells your program more than anything,” Pitino said. “You see an arena that’s filled with Gopher fans. That’s what playing college basketball is all about. You see these players are getting better and getting that exposure. That’s a dream come true.”
The 2019-20 team could have a much different look with Amir Coffey and Gabe Kalscheur joined by transfers Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and four-star recruit Tre’ Williams in the backcourt. Daniel Oturu, Jarvis Omersa and Eric Curry when recovered from foot surgery will compete in the frontcourt, but inside depth will be filled in recruiting in the spring.
Getting back to this point to make an NCAA tournament run is Minnesota’s goal next season, but Pitino’s biggest hole is replacing one of the program’s all-time greats.
Back spasms limited Murphy to just four minutes in Saturday’s loss to the Spartans. Omersa had just two points, but he showed promise in other areas with a career-high seven rebounds and three steals in 24 minutes.
“Obviously, Jordan Murphy, losing him, that’s hard to replace,” Pitino said. “As hard as tonight was, hopefully it helps build Jarvis’ confidence. He hasn’t played a lot, but I do think he can take that performance. I think he did a lot of great things. He played great defense. He played hard, rebounded the ball well. Obviously, continue to build off that.”
Oturu and Kalscheur were two of the best freshmen in the Big Ten. Oturu, who averaged 10.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, wants to add more weight to his 6-foot-10, 230-pound frame.
“I want to set the expectations high,” Oturu said. “I want to get into the weight room and get a lot stronger. Adding strength will help my game a lot.”
Kalscheur’s 24 points on five three-pointers led the Gophers in their NCAA tournament victory over Louisville. He set a school-freshman record with 77 three-pointers this season, but he can’t wait to get back into the gym to work on his game.
“The offseason is going to be fun,” Kalscheur said. “I’ve got a lot to work on, and so do other teammates. We’re going to have a bad taste in our mouth from this, so we’re going to work even harder to get back here.”
Pitino entered 2018-19 with questions about his job status and pressure to win after an injury-plagued season a year ago ruined the Gophers’ hopes of back-to-back NCAA tournament teams.
Injuries again were the story Saturday with Pitino’s team fighting to get to the Sweet 16, but this season set the expectations higher for the U.
“l feel like this program, you know, we’ve taken hits with injuries and I hate using excuses, but we have,” Pitino said. “We can’t let it derail us. We got to bounce back and get back in this thing again next year, and I think these guys have the character to do it.”