As part of doing prep for Iowa (Sunday in Iowa City, 6:30 p.m.), University of Minnesota coach Richard Pitino turned on the Hawkeyes' recent game against Maryland.

But as impressed as Pitino was with this weekend's opponent, he couldn't stop his eyes from wandering to the other team on the court, one who topped Iowa 74-68 on that night, and "raving" about the Terrapins, too, to his wife, Jill.

"What are you watching Maryland?" she asked.

"Maryland has five NBA basketball players in their lineup," Pitino replied. "I'm watching Iowa but I can't turn away from how much talent and length Maryland has too."

Unfortunately for the Gophers, they'll face both squads in the next five days, and while the talents of each are certainly awe-worthy from afar, Pitino will more than have his hands full in the games.

The pair is tied with tied with Indiana at the top of the league and both sit inside the AP top 25's top 5 -- with Maryland at No. 2 and Iowa at No. 4. Each feature the kind of size, athleticism and elite talent that can be scary for any opponent, not to mention a team that is thus far 0-12 in conference play. The Gophers, certainly, will have their work cut out for them simply to remain competitive heading into a likely battle-of-the-worst showdown with Rutgers at Williams Arena on Feb. 28.

"Those two teams are not only at the top of our league, but both of those teams could go to the Final Four and win a National Championship," Pitino said.

But at least in this first matchup, the Gophers can look across the court and dream of what could be.

Iowa is built around veteran talent that coach Fran McCaffery has slowly grown through a lot of regional and in-state recruiting -- three of five starters are from Iowa. 

The success that the Hawkeyes are enjoying this season has felt quick, but in reality it's been anything but. In 2010-11, McCaffery's first season in Iowa City, his team managed just four wins in league play. The next year, they went 8-10 and then in 2013, the Hawkeyes advanced to the title game of the NIT. In 2014, Iowa looked ready to take the next step -- but slumped to finish with seven losses in their final eight games, barely sneaking into the NCAA tournament and then losing in the first four to Tennessee. 

Last year, finally, Iowa broke through. The Hawkeyes finished 12-6 and tied for third in the league. This year, they're among the class of the nation. 

While Pitino's timeline so far is somewhat different from the start of McCaffery's reign at Iowa -- this year is truly ground zero -- the young Minnesota coach is hoping he can foster similar growth in a perennially tough league. 

He pointed to the recent influx of in-state players -- senior transfer Joey King, freshman Jarvis Johnson, who can't play due to a medical issues, sophomore transfer Reggie Lynch and recruits Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt -- as key to that turnaround for Minnesota, just as it was with Iowa, in large part because schools are often more likely to get elite players if they're from the area.

"Your in state talent, those classes have got to be good," Pitino said. "I think [McCaffery] struck while the iron was hot, he developed those guys and did a good job identifying and then just getting those guys older, and now they're reaping the rewards.

"It's difficult for us now to go through it. But I do see what this team can become, I really do."

Older Post

Pitino on attacking the basket: "That's got to be our identity"

Newer Post

Gophers pregame: Even as the season winds down, consistency in small ways is a focus