Preview: Pitino’s Gophers won’t be distracted by hype

Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Nate Mason is focused on leading his team to the top of the Big Ten.
Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — As last season began for Minnesota, coach Richard Pitino was still working on getting a group of players to not only block out external skepticism but believe internally in the potential for success.

The Gophers were listening.

More Gophers coverage

They put an embarrassing year with off-the-court trouble and a program-worst 8-23 record behind them in a hurry, surging to 15-2 start and recovering from a mid-January slide with an eight-game winning streak that sealed their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons under Pitino .

This fall? Well, Pitino has been busy playing psychologist again. This time the theme is the opposite: Don’t be distracted by the hype.

“We were so eager to get the respect back of everybody and to win again and to get people talking, we’ve got to understand that can go away,” Pitino said last month. “That’s fleeting as well. What got us here was doing it for each other. No ego. Working hard. But this group has shown that thus far.”

Pitino, who benefited from the 24-10 finish with a one-year contract extension that goes through 2022 and came with $1.7 million in new bonus money, will be responsible for guiding the Gophers amid the highest preseason expectations the program has faced since the NCAA Final Four appearance 20 years ago.

They lost only one of their top seven scorers, with the departure of shooting guard Akeem Springs. They’ve brought in two heralded East Coast recruits, with point guard Isaiah Washington (New York) and shooting guard Jamir Harris (New Jersey). They’re also welcoming power forward Davonte Fitzgerald to the rotation, after two full years on the sideline.

Michigan State is predictably the Big Ten favorite, but the Gophers have been high on the list on all of the conference predictions. With senior point guard Nate Mason, senior center Reggie Lynch and junior power forward Jordan Murphy leading the locker room, they’ve got plenty of experience to rely on.

“They may not need to yell and scream, but they can speak from a great point of view about what it takes to win,” Pitino said.

Here are some key angles to follow throughout the season:

COFFEY TIME

Sophomore Amir Coffey will be another key contributor, coming off a promising debut that landed him on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Coffey could be the best two-way player the Gophers have, after finishing second on the team last season in points, steals and assists, all behind Mason.

“You can just tell he’s taken the next step from a habits standpoint,” Pitino said, “to where I’m looking at him going, `OK, you understand you could play basketball for a long time. You’ve tasted success, and you want more of it.'”

WELCOMING WASHINGTON

Washington was the Mr. New York Basketball award winner and a consensus top-100 recruit nationally coming out of St. Raymond’s High School in Harlem, building a cult following known as the “Jelly Fam” in honor of his signature finger roll layup , the jelly roll. Washington has 398,000 followers on Instagram , an extraordinary amount of fame for a teenager.

“What I’ve tried to get him to understand is that at this level, that’s all well and good,” Pitino said. “But it comes down to performance. It comes down to winning.”

FITZGERALD, FINALLY

Fitzgerald sat out the 2015-16 season after transferring from Texas A&M. Then an ACL tear and other significant damage in his left knee kept him out another year. He was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA, so the Gophers should have two years to benefit from his presence in the post.

BANGED-UP BODIES

Fitzgerald has been brought along slowly in practice. Lynch (knee) and shooting guard Dupree McBrayer (leg) have also been limited this fall, with the Gophers aiming for full strength by the Nov. 10 opener against South Carolina Upstate. The team already lost power forward Eric Curry, who played a meaningful role off the bench as a freshman last season, for the year because of an ACL tear and other significant damage in his left knee.

ON THE SLATE

The Gophers will play four power conference opponents in November and December: Providence, Alabama, Miami and Arkansas. They’ve also got games against Massachusetts and Harvard, two accomplished programs.

The Big Ten schedulers gave them a break, though, with only one matchup each against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan. They play bottom-dwellers Rutgers and Nebraska in early December in their first two conference games, and once Big Ten play resumes for good after the new year they have a favorable start with consecutive contests at home with Illinois and Indiana.

Minnesota Preview Capsule

Last season: 24-10, lost to Middle Tennessee in first round of NCAA Tournament.

Nickname: Golden Gophers.

Coach: Richard Pitino

Conference: Big Ten.

Who’s gone: SG Akeem Springs: He had a team-high 67 made 3-pointers in his lone season at Minnesota as a graduate transfer.

Who’s back: PG Nate Mason: The senior was among 20 point guards in the country named to the preseason Bob Cousy Award watch list after being named first team All-Big Ten for 2016-17. SF Amir Coffey: The Big Ten All-Freshman Team pick from last season and the son of former Gophers standout Richard Coffey has only scratched the surface with his inside-outside, two-way ability. PF Jordan Murphy: The team’s leading rebounder averaged 11.3 points per game last season. C Reggie Lynch: The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year set a new single-season Gophers record with 114 blocked shots.

Who’s new: PG Isaiah Washington: The Mr. New York Basketball award winner as the top player in the state, he was a consensus top-100 recruit. PF Davonte Fitzgerald: The fifth-year junior has two seasons of eligibility left after sitting out two years, one for a transfer from Texas A&M and one after an ACL tear and other damage to his left knee from an offseason practice.

The Skinny: Coming off a 16-win turnaround from 2015-16 and the first NCAA Tournament appearance since Pitino took over in 2013, bringing all but Springs back from their top seven scorers from last season, hopes are the highest this program has had in 20 years. Staying healthy will be the key. PF Eric Curry, who made meaningful contributions as a freshman backup, injured his left knee in an offseason pickup game and will redshirt this season.