The Gophers basketball team is not only playing well, but better than anyone expected this season. They are projected as a No. 7 seed for the NCAA tournament by ESPN.com, and CBSSports.com has them as a No. 5 seed. The Gophers' RPI ranking of 16 gives them a chance for a high seed in the tournament.
The seed could get even higher if they close out the season by beating Nebraska at Williams Arena on Thursday and the Badgers at Wisconsin on Sunday, followed by a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., next week.
This is not only the first time for these players to be heading to the NCAA tournament and dealing with high expectations, but this also will be Richard Pitino's first NCAA tournament as a head coach.
He was asked what it's like taking a team used to being underdogs and getting them used to being the favorites.
"It's funny, when everybody is on you and fans are on you, media is on you, you always tell the guys, 'Block out the noise,' " Pitino said. "Well, it's the same thing when everybody is praising you. It just has nothing to do with Thursday. Is it exciting that we're playing well? Yes it is. It's fun. It's fun to be a part of and fun to have the town and the state and everybody excited about you, but with that being said, embrace it, enjoy it, but that's irrelevant when the ball goes up Thursday."
With the Gophers' improved play comes exactly what Pitino is talking about — a drastically improved atmosphere at Williams Arena — where the Gophers have won four consecutive games. They have won seven in a row overall.
Pitino said the growing energy in the building is something few of his current players have seen.
"Probably only Nate Mason and Darin [Haugh] would be the only two guys who would know," Pitino said. "I'm sure Reggie [Lynch] growing up saw it, and Amir [Coffey] growing up saw it. But until you're on the court playing, you don't realize how special it can be.
"We have to get that every night. Hopefully we can ride some really good momentum, even into next year, where we're getting that every night. Because when it's good, it's the biggest advantage we have. I know guys love playing it. I always equate it to a Wrigley Field-type of environment, a Fenway Park-type building. There's not a whole lot I would change with that place. It's special and I enjoy coaching there."
The Gophers have Mason, Coffey, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Akeem Springs all averaging over 10 points per game and have Lynch right behind them at 8.2. Pitino said that willingness to embrace team play has been the best aspect of this season.
"They enjoy playing with each other, and they play the right way. I've had a lot of people come up to me and just say that, 'We really enjoy watching you guys play,' " Pitino said. "I even had — I don't talk about my dad [Louisville coach Rick Pitino] much — but it's funny, he texted me the night before the [Penn State] game and said, 'I'm bringing a couple people up to the game.' And I said, 'Really, you don't need to do that … Why are you doing this?' And he said, 'I just love watching you guys play in The Barn.'
"It has been, everyone has said it, our guys truly do just care about winning. They care about each other's success, they root for each other, they want to see each other succeed. It has definitely been a fun team to coach, that's for sure."
Pitino said that style of play, along with the winning environment, is what's going to keep his staff in the mix to recruit high-profile players, as they have in their two most recent classes and already in the 2018 class, which includes outstanding Cretin-Derham Hall power forward Daniel Oturu.
There are other top local players in that class, such as Apple Valley point guard Tre Jones and Armstrong power forward Race Thompson. Pitino believes the current culture, along with improved facilities, will help attract more local standouts to play for the Gophers.
"When it comes to local recruiting, there's nothing more important than winning," he said. "When you get the town and get the state bought into your program, it helps in recruiting. That's the biggest selling point you can have. When you're having success, you're having sold-out crowds, local kids are doing well, and then I think the biggest thing is the facilities.
"The facilities, showing that commitment to obviously men's basketball and all the other sports, it shows your local recruits that you care about winning. You can't hide anything from local recruits. We were able to do a couple things my first couple years — redo Bierman gym, redo the weight room — but at the end of the day, local guys go and see other places and they ask you, 'Why don't you have that?' And winning is obviously the biggest selling point. So we're excited about where we're going."
• Isaiah Washington, reputed to be one of the best Gophers basketball recruits in years, is becoming quite a leader playing point guard at St. Raymond (N.Y.) High School, assistant coach Joseph Amelio told Rivals.com: "Several of Isaiah's strengths are evident: the ball-handling, his court vision, and his midrange game is rapidly getting better. Upon his arrival at St. Raymond, I'm not sure if he knew what leadership meant at such a young age. What was once a weakness has now become a strength."
• Another Minnesota high schooler in the 2018 class, Orono forward Jarvis Thomas, wants to play for the Gophers. He already has offers from Marquette and Iowa State, among other schools. "I am kind of waiting for Minnesota to pull the trigger on me. They are the home team, so they are always an option," he recently told Rivals.com.
• Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has always had a soft spot for Minnesota and now the Golden Bear is looking at real estate options in Blaine, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. The plan would be to build a hotel, which would serve amateur athletes and the Victory Links Golf Course near the National Sports Center. The hotel would most likely be between the Schwan Super Rink and Victory Links, so when large events are held in Blaine, there would be a hotel nearby to accommodate athletes and their families close to those venues.
• Gophers sophomore defenseman Jack Sadek, who has seven points in 28 games this season for the men's hockey team, is the third generation of the Sadek family to play at the U. His father, Brett Sadek, and his grandfather, Bob Sadek, both played quarterback for the Gophers football team.
Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org