The pundits around college basketball have done a 180-degree turn when it comes to their expectations for Richard Pitino’s Gophers men’s basketball squad.
Last year, the Gophers were ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press preseason poll. This year, Sports Illustrated rated them No. 7 in the Big Ten behind Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland.
Athlon Sports ranked the Gophers 11th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern, Illinois and Rutgers, and named Pitino as a coach on the hot seat.
Pitino doesn’t see things that way at all. What he sees is the best collection of talent he has had with the Gophers coming off a very tough season that dealt with a number of injuries to key players and the dismissal of center Reggie Lynch from the team.
“I have been in this league when we have been picked at the bottom and finished close to the top, and I have been picked close to the top and finished close to the bottom,” Pitino said. “You never really know with anything.
“I think that, knock on wood, if we’re healthy, we have a chance to compete. I don’t worry about preseason rankings. They are kind of irrelevant. I just focus on what we can control, and that’s getting better today.”
The Gophers will have a balanced roster with a lot of experience in seniors Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer, juniors Michael Hurt and Amir Coffey, sophomores Eric Curry and Isaiah Washington and a trio of local freshmen in Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa.
Pitino said that while last season was one of the most challenging of his career, he believes the group gives the Gophers a great chance to compete.
“I felt like last year we could really, really elevate this program to a new level,” he said. “We have to make sure that through all the injuries and things out of our control last year it doesn’t halt the momentum of our program. Recruiting is still going great, obviously the facilities are terrific, and we have a really good team. We have a team that has a long way to go, but we have a really good team.”
Fell apart in second half
The Gophers showed flashes last season of what kind of team they could have when healthy.
They began 13-3, including three conference games and nonconference games vs. Providence, Massachusetts, Alabama, Miami (Fla.), Drake and Harvard, scoring 83.8 points per game and giving up 70.6 per game. They shot 45.9 percent from the floor and held opponents to 39.9 percent.
But Coffey was injured in that third conference game, a 77-67 victory over Illinois, and things went south fast.
In their final 16 games, they went 2-14 and averaged 66.9 points per game while their opponents averaged 79.8. The Gophers shot 40.2 percent from the floor compared to 48.0 percent from their opponents.
Pitino said that as practice started this past week, the focus was on getting a full and healthy roster on the court, and the team is close to doing that.
“Dupree McBrayer, we gave him about two months off,” Pitino said. “Amir took most of the spring off and he is full go, Eric Curry is still not 100 percent but he is close, then Daniel Oturu had surgery in May and he is still not 100 percent.
“But we are getting there, getting close to full strength. We have a lot of bodies. It is going to be fun. This summer, we weren’t able to go a lot of 5-on-5 because of the injuries, and we’re able to start playing a little bit more competitively throughout practice now because we have more bodies.”
There’s no doubt that the Gophers can’t wait to prove that the potential everyone saw in them last season can still come true, even if it’s a year late.
McGuire builds a dream team
For Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire, one of the most important aspects of building an ownership group for his MLS team was getting families with deep local ties to the Twin Cities to come aboard, and he has done that.
“About 16 or so individuals or families in the ownership group,” he said. “The largest of those, Pohlads, Taylor family, Mithun family, Binger family, a whole host — everybody is pretty much Minnesota-based, not just short-term or recently but long-term, generational, and I think a very solid group of people invest in the community for generations to come.”
The Loons are set to open Allianz Field next year, and every home game looks like it will be sold out before the season starts. McGuire said one of the great parts of the ownership group is the deep sports knowledge.
“As you can imagine with that group, there is probably more ideas than we can deal with or figure out, but it’s a very unique and great situation to have that much experience,” he said. “The Timberwolves have been here 30 years, the Vikings at 57-58 years, the Twins at 57-58 years, going way back. There’s a lot of accumulated knowledge.
“Some of it is stuff that has worked, some of it is warning of things that don’t work. I think the ability to pick up the phone and talk to people and hash things out is very unique and beneficial. I think you’ll see it show up in some of the things we do and how the game is presented.”
• What has happened to the Vikings defense? In coach Mike Zimmer’s first four seasons, the Vikings gave up 320 yards per game, the third-best mark in the NFL. This year they are giving up 381.5 yards, which ranks 21st in the NFL, and the Rams’ 556 yards were the most vs. the Vikings since Zimmer’s arrival in 2014.
• Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter said he knows the team has to regroup before going to Philadelphia next weekend. “It’s a really important week coming up. We have a few days off to get ready, get ourselves better, get all the dings and our team fresh again. We just have to go in there and fix our mistakes and move on from [Thursday].”
• Kirk Cousins’ 1,387 passing yards are the most ever for a Vikings quarterback through four games. Daunte Culpepper had 1,349 in 2004.
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck on what he expects when they face the Hawkeyes at home Saturday: “Iowa is a very good football team and played Wisconsin very tough. They’re coming into our place, one of the best rivalries in college football and one of the best rivalries in the Big Ten. We’re excited. We hope everybody comes out and supports us.”
• If this is indeed Joe Mauer’s final weekend as a major league baseball player, he will retire with the most career hits, doubles, RBI and walks by any player at Target Field.
• Collegiate Baseball ranked the Gophers’ 2018 recruiting class No. 37 in the nation. They were the No. 1 Big Ten program.
• Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau on what he has seen so far from draft picks Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop. “They are very serious-minded, hardworking, they want to learn, and they’re both defensive-minded, long, they both can shoot the ball and play multiple type positions. They’re both the type of player we’re looking for.”