In past years, Richard Pitino would already be making a stance if he thought preseason predictions — good or bad — for his Gophers men’s basketball team either were overhyped or understated.
Coming off the program’s first NCAA tournament victory in six years, Pitino hasn’t really talked about the Gophers being picked maybe too high or too low going into the 2019-20 season.
The Gophers are predicted to finish 11th in this year’s Big Ten unofficial media preseason poll, released Monday. Don’t expect Pitino to be campaigning at Wednesday’s Big Ten Media Day in Chicago about his squad being vastly underrated. Not yet, anyway.
Sure, the Gophers have goals of getting back to the NCAA tourney, but Pitino isn’t sure exactly how good his team is right now. They have seven newcomers and different players leading the way.
“Totally different team,” Pitino said to open practice last week. “You’ve got to get them not to use that as an excuse and find a way to get caught up as quickly as possible. Very important for the returners to be very good influences on the court.”
Michigan State was a near-unanimous pick (27 of 28 writers’ votes) to win the Big Ten title, with Maryland as the only other first-place vote-getter. Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan rounded out the top five. Wisconsin was sixth. The highest predicted finish in the unofficial media poll for the Gophers was seventh by a voter, but four voters picked them to finish as low as 13th out of 14 teams.
Pitino lost starters Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer from a 22-win squad that beat Louisville in the NCAA tournament. Coffey chose to pursue the NBA over a big senior year. So, that clearly affected how the Gophers are perceived.
Coffey, a third-team All-Big Ten selection, would have been one of the top returning players in the country based on the way he finished his junior year. Instead, none of the college basketball preview magazines have a Gophers player ranked among the top 100 in the nation. Those magazines predict Pitino’s team will be NIT bound, finishing no higher than 10th in the Big Ten.
The Gophers’ most notable returners are sophomores Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur, but those two won’t be representing the program in Chicago this week. That will be sophomore guard Marcus Carr and senior forward Michael Hurt. Carr could replace Coffey at point guard, but he sat out last season after transferring from Pittsburgh. Hurt is the only player on the roster with three years of experience in the program, but he averaged only 1.7 points last season.
“It feels like Year 1 a little bit, but it’s exciting,” Pitino said. “The good part about it is you’ve built a program to a point where hopefully you can sustain success. The guys you’re bringing into the locker room came because they want to play in the NCAA tournament. They’re understanding what the expectations are moving forward.”