Richard Pitino joked that his 7-1 Gophers men’s basketball team would cut down the nets if it matched last season’s eight wins with a victory Tuesday night.
In all honesty, Pitino said eight wins would really mean nothing significant.
The goal is not just to top last year.
The Gophers, who host New Jersey Institute of Technology (5-4) on Tuesday at Williams Arena, are already setting their sights much, much higher.
“And that’s going to the NCAA tournament,” sophomore Dupree McBrayer said Monday. “That’s our team goal.”
McBrayer said Pitino obviously wants the team to focus on one game at a time. But a strong start has given Minnesota’s players more confidence about possibly making the program’s first NCAA tournament since 2012-13.
“That’s all we want to do,” McBrayer said. “That’s what all of us want.”
Even before a comeback 56-52 win Saturday against Vanderbilt in Sioux Falls, S.D., ESPN’s Joe Lunardi mentioned Minnesota among “the First Four Out” last week.
Fans shouldn’t get too excited. It’s way too early to trust NCAA tournament bracket projections.
But surviving a stretch of four major conference opponents in five games with only one loss, at Florida State, means the Gophers realistically can finish nonconference with a 12-1 record.
And that would help them stay on pace for a potential postseason bid going into Big Ten play.
“Even in a loss to Florida State, Minnesota was impressive,” wrote Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin, while listing the Gophers ninth in his Big Ten power rankings this week. “They showed they belong in the mix of Big Ten teams who will compete to remain in the middle of the pack and in the NCAA tournament discussions.”
After NJIT on Tuesday, the Gophers, who have a Rating Percentage Index ranked No. 8 in the country, play Georgia Southern and Northern Illinois on Friday and Sunday. Long Island University-Brooklyn and Arkansas State then come to the Barn on Dec. 14 and Dec. 23. Arkansas State’s RPI is 24th, but the other four opponents have an RPI of 197 or higher. Any losses there would be very bad for the résumé.
Pitino said he’d be surprised if his team overlooks any of the remaining nonconference opponents. The Gophers lost to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee last season.
Freshman standout Amir Coffey wasn’t there last year. And he’s showed poise beyond his years, making a couple of clutch baskets down the stretch to help the Gophers overcome a six-point deficit in the last five minutes Saturday against Vanderbilt.
Coffey leads the team in scoring (13.9). The Gophers have four players averaging double figures in points, but they’re still trying to find a consistent go-to guy who can help them break out of dry shooting spells.
Defense seems to be the only constant, giving Pitino’s team a chance to win even on off shooting nights.
The Gophers lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense (36.0) through eight games, compared to opponents shooting 42 percent at this point last season. They rank second in the conference in three-point-shooting defense (28.7), compared to opponents shooting 38.4 percent last season.
Pitino is an avid follower of college basketball’s advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy, who ranks Minnesota’s defensive efficiency at 93.0. That’s 24th nationally and fourth in the Big Ten.
Reggie Lynch, who had six blocks in Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt, ranks second in the Big Ten and fourth nationally with 3.57 blocks per game. Minnesota and Northwestern are tied with a conference-best 6.5 blocks per game.
“As long as we defend and rebound, we’re going to have a shot,” Pitino said. “At Florida State, we didn’t defend and rebound when we needed to and we lost the game. I do think these guys understand that.”