INDIANAPOLIS – The Gophers men’s basketball team awoke Thursday with a sliver of hope. It won its Big Ten tournament opener one night earlier against Northwestern and had outscored its past two opponents by a combined 49 points.
But before the Gophers boarded the bus to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Big Ten officials already were shooing Michigan and Rutgers players off the court. End of tournament. End of hope.
Minnesota’s season was over. The NCAA later announced that all remaining winter and spring sports competitions, including the men’s and women’s national basketball tournaments, also were canceled because of coronavirus concerns.
“We felt pretty confident we could make a run in this conference tournament,” coach Richard Pitino told Gophers Radio Thursday. “How far? You just never know. We thought we’d been playing good basketball. … As fun as that would’ve been to be a part of, we know the right decision was made for everybody.”
With All-America center Daniel Oturu and All-Big Ten point guard Marcus Carr, advancing past Iowa on Thursday seemed possible. An NIT bid, even with a sub-. 500 record, wasn’t far-fetched.
The Gophers (15-16) were the only team with a losing record with a top 30 rating by KenPom.com. They also had five Quadrant 1 wins against likely NCAA tournament teams Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State (two).
The Gophers finished with an 8-12 Big Ten record, but six of those losses were by six points or fewer, including three by a combined six points against Maryland, Wisconsin and Iowa.
At the team’s Indianapolis hotel, Pitino had a tough talk with his players about not getting to make up for some missed opportunities.
“There’s heartbreak after that fun ride, whether it’s NCAA tournament, conference tournament or whatever,” Pitino said. “And then it ends when you get together and talk about it. You get excited for your younger guys and appreciate the older guys. That didn’t really happen [the right way] now, so it’s strange.”
Gophers faithful have to realize they likely saw Oturu’s last college game. Fans also are probably wondering about the status of Pitino’s job for next season.
Oturu had 24 points vs. Northwestern on Wednesday and played as if it was possibly his final college game. The 6-foot-10 sophomore could have an opportunity to be selected in June’s NBA draft if he leaves early.
Then there’s the Pitino question. At this time last season, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle saw enough to give the coach a two-year contract extension. But Coyle hasn’t addressed Pitino’s status of late.
What will happen with the Gophers once Oturu likely decides to leave early? They are still expected to have three starters returning, including Carr, who averaged 15 points and ranked second in the Big Ten with nearly seven assists per game.
The coronavirus precautions forced the Gophers to book a flight home Thursday night. They reflected quickly on a difficult ending to the season, and now there are a lot of unknowns with the virus and their daily lives.
“At the end of the day, it was the right decision to cancel everything,” Pitino said. “We all have to lean on each other. We have to understand that it’s serious. It’s not a joking matter.”