As the Big Ten’s “Cinderella” team, Richard Pitino has the Minnesota Gophers on the brink of the Big Dance after a wretched 2015-16 season.
After a down year in 2015-16, the Minnesota Golden Gophers have emerged as one of the top teams in the elite Big Ten conference. The Gophers recently hit the magic number of 20 wins on the year, now appearing as mortal locks for the NCAA Tournament.
Comparing this year’s team to last season’s debacle is like comparing apples to oranges. Over the course of 2015-16, the Gophers managed to win only eight games, finishing the season with a putrid 8-23 record.
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One of the main reasons for Minnesota’s success is the man stalking the sidelines every game, Richard Pitino Jr.
In his fourth season in Minneapolis, Richard Pitino Jr. is lucky to have held his job after last season. Not only was the Gophers’ on-court performance shaky, but off-court incidents made things worse.
Had the Gophers been successful in 2015-16, I’m sure the story would have been swept under the rug. However, it came on the heels of another embarrassing story that hit the newswire in March.
On Mar. 2, with two games remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, three key players received suspensions due to a sexually explicit video surfacing on the internet. Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason were all forced to sit out the rest of the year, leading to three straight blowout losses to end the season.
With all the turmoil in 2015-16, the Gophers landed near the bottom in FanSided’s preseason Big Ten preview. To make matters worse, Pitino was sitting firmly on the hot seat, needing a big year to save his job in Minneapolis.
The Gophers started 2016-17 on a ridiculous 15-2 run, including wins over St. John’s, Arkansas, Purdue, Northwestern and Ohio State.
Pitino has his team playing well on both ends of the court, averaging 75.4 points on offense, while only allowing 68.6 on defense. According to KenPom, the Gophers rank No. 14 overall in defensive efficiency.
Contributions have come from many places, but the starting five is something to write home about. With a fine balance of shooters, athletes and tough guys, the Gophers have arguably the best opening unit in the Big Ten.
The most notable player on Minnesota is junior Nate Mason. After his suspension last year, he’s been a great reclamation story but is also getting it done on the court. He has stepped up time after time for Minnesota, proving he is a true go-to guy and leader.
In fact, in the Gophers’ two biggest wins this year (Purdue and Indiana), Mason scored 31 and 30 points, respectively. Overall, he leads the team in scoring (15.0 points per game) and assists (5.3 per game).
In addition, freshman swingman Amir Coffey is making a name for himself in the Twin Cities. After following in his father’s footsteps by joining the Gophers, Coffey is playing major minutes and earning buzz as an NBA prospect. In 30+ minutes per night, he’s the team’s second-leading scorer with 12.3 points per game, while also chipping in 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Rounding out the Gophers’ starting lineup is sophomore Jordan Murphy, sharpshooter Akeem Springs and Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch. All three are playing over 20 minutes per game, with Murphy leading the team in rebounds per game (8.5) and Springs leading the team in three-point field goals (58).
Currently, Minnesota’s record stands at 20-7 as the team is in the middle of a five-game win streak. According to the latest KenPom ratings, they’re the No. 38 ranked team in the nation.
In terms of the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota is sitting pretty. As of Feb. 20, bracketology expert Joe Lunardi has them slated as a No. 8 seed in the Midwest region. With such a talented group, there’s no reason the Gophers can’t go on a run come March.
Budgets aside, Richard Pitino can flat-out recruit. With all the transfer talent they brought in, coupled with their talented freshmen, Gophers fans can rest easy knowing that Pitino will have a steady stream of talent flowing.