P.J. Fleck shows up, and the Gophers men’s basketball team wins the game that should propel it into the top 25.
Coincidence? I think not. You can’t watch Fleck throwing dishes to unicycling legend Red Panda without being inspired to feats of greatness.
Sunday night, the Gophers bookended Fleck’s latest pep rally with a 78-68 victory over Ohio State at Williams Arena that required the skills of someone who looks almost as old as the new football coach.
Last year, during one of the worst seasons in Gophers history, Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy acclimated to the Big Ten. Then Richard Pitino brought in his best recruiting class, featuring Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch.
Those players have provided the skill that has brought the Gophers to the cusp of national recognition. Sunday, they needed help from a less-celebrated player who hinted not long ago that he might not fit in.
“When what’s-his-face is making [three-pointers] — you know, Zero — that’s a heck of a weapon,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Akeem Springs wears No. 0.
A senior in terms of eligibility, Springs shot 6-for-10 from the floor, including 5-for-8 from the three-point line. He made one of two free throws and had three rebounds, five assists and one turnover in 27 minutes. He finished with 18 well-placed points while looking remarkably comfortable making big plays for a rising team.
“I’m like the dad of the team,” Springs said. “I’m the vocal one.”
The 6-4 Springs graduated from Wisconsin-Milwaukee and transferred to the troubled Gophers program because it offered immediate playing time.
Pitino had praised Springs for “changing the tone” of his team’s practices but when he realized he wouldn’t be starting for the Gophers Springs tweeted, “Looks like my time in Minnesota was shorter than I thought.”
It is thought to be the only time a Gophers figure has ever tweeted anything problematic.
Pitino calmed springs and eventually named him a team captain. Against the Buckeyes, Springs demonstrated that the honor had more to do with performance than pacification.
In the second half, he converted a deft fast-break layup that required him to rise above a defender, set up Mason for a floater-and-foul, and hit an important three-pointer with less than two minutes remaining that made it 69-60.
Murphy, Mason and Dupree McBrayer combined to shoot 7-for-32 from the floor. Springs made that statistic irrelevant and demonstrated that the Gophers’ depth will be a strength as they try to put together their best season under Pitino.
“He’s a great kid,” Pitino said. “Emotional leader. Very, very confident personality. He came in late, in September. It was difficult to get him integrated. I kept telling him relax, it’s going to happen. He was a little impatient at first, which is normal.
“He’s really taking a great leadership role. Confident kid, funny kid, he believes every shot is going in, and I believe it is too.”
According to ESPN, the Gophers’ victory was their seventh this season over a team in its BPI (Basketball Power Index) top 100. Only Butler, Baylor and North Carolina have more.
The Gophers are a strange combination of youth and mental toughness. They blew a lead and lost in overtime to Michigan State at home in the Big Ten opener, then responded by winning three quite losable games in a row, outperforming their opponents down the stretch.
Mason provided the impetus at Purdue. Coffey and Mason’s free throws allowed the Gophers to hang on at Northwestern. Sunday, with Mason misfiring, the old man of the group was needed.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Springs said. “It’s been up and down, but it’s been a lot of fun. The reason is, if you watch us play and watch the bench, everyone is up.
“When you’re winning games and know the person next to you is happy for you, that’s the best.”
The Barn held lots of happy people Sunday night. When Fleck wasn’t firing up the crowd, ol’ “What’s-his-face’’ was.