The Gophers men’s basketball team went through a rough five-game losing streak after starting 3-1 in Big Ten play, but after Wednesday’s tremendous 101-89 double overtime victory against Iowa, the Gophers have won two straight and have a good chance of winning at Rutgers on Saturday.
Coach Richard Pitino said after the Iowa win that he was most impressed with his young players’ fight in a game that they easily could have lost.
“I thought they just fought through it, they were really tired, and I was refusing to sub,” Pitino said. “They squandered a lead, and they fought through it. Nate Mason made winning plays at the end and so did Jordan Murphy. I think it was just one of those deals where we had to break through at some point; we have had a bunch of overtime games.”
The Gophers are 2-2 in overtime games this season and are 5-6 in conference play, tied for seventh place.
Still, in their quest to get back to the NCAA tournament the Gophers have one big number on their side: They are 21st in RPI, which is the main number the NCAA selection committee looks at when picking at-large teams. The Gophers really benefited from having the 20th-best nonconference strength of schedule and going 12-1 in those 13 games, with their lone loss being at Florida State, which is now ranked No. 14 in the country.
One thing that is easy to forget about these Gophers, because they have played so competitively, is their youth.
Earlier this week, Pitino was asked how he helps players handle their expectations when they go through slumps, including someone like Murphy — who really struggled for the month of January before breaking out with a 25-point, 19-rebound game against the Hawkeyes.
“I try to be as honest as possible with where I think everybody is at,” Pitino said. “With Murph you can see a really good freshman year so everyone thinks the next step is a terrific sophomore year. You know Murph hasn’t been playing basketball for a long time. I think he still needs to learn some things, and he’s a willing learner.
“You have to get them to be patient and understand it is a process and just continue to work hard, like you’re doing. The biggest thing is we all want your success, we’re going to work with you every day to get better, and it will come. It’s almost like when we lost five in a row and we were so close, we kept telling our guys it’s going to come at some point, and fortunately it came.”
And with Akeem Springs as the only senior seeing significant playing time, there’s no reason that next season’s team can’t be even more impressive.
Perhaps the biggest signee of Pitino’s tenure here was Amir Coffey, the four-star standout who had offers from programs such as Baylor, Indiana, Michigan State, Texas and Wisconsin but decided to stay home.
And now Pitino has commitments for next season from Jamir Harris, a guard out of New Jersey, and Isaiah Washington, a four-star guard out of the Bronx in New York, who is looking like one of the best players in the country.
“Isaiah Washington just put up 55 points in a league game, which is exciting because he’s a good scorer but he’s a terrific passer. To see a guy doing that is great,” Pitino said. “I believe we’re really turning the corner with everything, with recruiting, I think we have some really good young talent if you look at our team.”
And the 2018 recruiting class is already a positive with another big in-state signee in Daniel Oturu of Cretin-Derham Hall.
It’s that kind of consistent recruiting, mixed with the good young players that Pitino already has, that makes him believe the program is on the way up.
“I was always concerned when I had gotten here, we weren’t building,” he said. “We were treading water. We had an older team, and we were trying to win around that team. We didn’t have a lot of good, young talent at the time, and now I feel like we’ve got that. That’s the way that you win in this league is through great recruiting.
“You have to do it not one class but one, two, three classes on top of each other. I’m really excited about where we’re going.”
• The Timberwolves’ 112-109 win over the Raptors on Wednesday marked Andrew Wiggins’ 11th consecutive game with 20-plus points (he finished with 31). That’s the longest streak of 20-plus points for the Wolves since Kevin Love did it 14 straight times in 2013-2014. ... Speaking of Wiggins, he has been controlling the ball late in most games for the Wolves, and he made a big shot to tie the score and a great pass to Tyus Jones for the game winner. Wiggins talked about that role. “The more I’m in those type of situations, the more I know what to do,” he said. “Seeing a lot of different options, and seeing how the game is flowing.”
• Lance Stephenson, who the Wolves signed to a 10-day contract and hadn’t played a game in over three months, played 20 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter, and scored six points to go along with four rebounds. “I thought I was going to be tired, but I’ve been working so far and I wanted to be back so bad, I was ready and confident in myself,” he said. “I just tried to take the smart shots. Don’t try anything crazy, just be solid.”
• Madison Square Garden in New York, Staples Center in Los Angeles and United Center in Chicago find ways to schedule their hockey and basketball teams and have them play on different nights, but here Xcel Energy Center and Target Center have 41 conflicts this year — and that doesn’t include Gophers hockey and basketball playing on the same night. On Wednesday the Timberwolves, Wild and Gophers men’s basketball team all played with attendance as follows: Wild 19,326, Gophers were 11,481, and the Timberwolves 13,832, for a total of 44,639. It was amazing to see the three teams playing on the same night drawing, but it helped that Iowa was a big attraction for the Gophers and the Blackhawks were a big one for the Wild.
• One of the standouts of the Gophers hockey series with Penn State was junior forward Leon Bristedt, who notched a hat trick in Saturday’s 5-3 win, the first of his career. Coach Don Lucia said Bristedt, who had 20 goals and 17 assists as a sophomore, may have been pressing earlier in the season, which made the hat trick that much sweeter. “You know we were just talking before the game, somebody had 20 goals last year, and sometimes you get so caught up in, ‘I have to do better,’ the following year that you don’t get off to the start you wanted and maybe you’re trying to play catch-up,” Lucia said. “It was good to see him get three goals.”