Four years ago was the last time the Gophers were ranked among the top 25 men’s basketball teams in the country.
Where was Reggie Lynch then? He was a senior at Edina High School trying to lead the program to its first state tournament in 25 years.
Now Lynch is part of a Minnesota team that sits at 14-2 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play after two consecutive impressive road performances. The Gophers are a victory away from likely ending that top-25 hiatus if they can beat Ohio State on Sunday at Williams Arena.
“We don’t really try to think about the top 25,” Lynch said Saturday. “We just try to focus on winning the next game that’s in front of us. But obviously in our mind, we’re thinking we should be ranked.”
The Gophers received 56 points in last week’s Associated Press men’s basketball poll, which means they are the team with the most votes outside of the top 25. Thursday’s victory at Northwestern probably won over a lot of voters.
CBSSports.com actually updated its ranking Friday just to place the Gophers at No. 25, but the Associated Press media and USA Today coaches polls won’t be released until Monday.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino can’t use the disrespect card any longer.
“I like not being ranked,” Pitino said. “I don’t want to be ranked. Keep us out of it.”
With national rankings come higher expectations.
During the 2012-13 season, the Gophers were ranked as high as No. 8 in the country after a 15-1 start, which is the program’s best start before this season. They opened the Big Ten season 3-0 but lost four consecutive games. The last time the Gophers were ranked was No. 18 in both the AP and coaches polls on Feb. 4, 2013, but Tubby Smith’s team lost back-to-back games that week to Michigan State and Illinois and didn’t return to the top 25 the rest of the year.
Some fans have started Twitter chats about whether a top-25 ranking for the Gophers would be the clichéd “kiss of death” again. Regardless if a ranking comes soon, Pitino has already been trying to keep his players humble after having a lot more success than people expected this year.
Preseason college basketball publications predicted the Gophers, coming off an 8-23 season, would finish as low as 14th in the 14-team Big Ten. They are currently tied for fourth with Purdue at 2-1.
“I told them yesterday before practice, ‘Remember what got us here,’ ” Pitino said. “Remember why you got better. Remember all of the ingredients that went into becoming a good team. And understand that you better get better, because everybody else is getting better. If you think you’ve arrived, you can be humbled extremely quickly in this conference.”
Lynch, a junior transfer from Illinois State, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee senior graduate transfer Akeem Springs added experience that the Gophers lacked last season. Freshmen Amir Coffey, Eric Curry and Michael Hurt are all contributing. The five newcomers are averaging a combined 37 points per game.
Curry had seven of his 10 points in overtime for the Gophers in the 91-82 overtime win at Purdue. Coffey led the team in scoring with 17 points and Hurt hit his first Big Ten three-pointer in Thursday night’s 70-66 victory at Northwestern.
The returning players have been just as impactful. Junior Nate Mason, who had eight straight free throws to finish off Northwestern, is averaging 20.3 points and 7.3 assists in three Big Ten games. Sophomore Jordan Murphy is averaging a double-double in conference with 11.7 points and 11.3 rebounds. Sophomore Dupree McBrayer and junior Bakary Konate are two of Pitino’s most improved players.
The Gophers believe they are the biggest surprise in the Big Ten. Ranked or not, the players have a goal of making the NCAA tournament. They are just trying not to let early success get to their heads.
“It’s kind of human nature, but we try not to,” Coffey said. “We try to focus on our opponent and keep getting better in practice. But that’s one thing that guys want to do is make the tournament.”