The NCAA Tournament tips off today with a full schedule of games, and this year a surprise guest is the Minnesota Gophers. With only 7 wins last year, coupled with some off the court troubles, Minnesota wasn’t expected to do much this season. Apparently the word didn’t reach the young team and coach Richard Pitino.
This year’s version of the Gophers finished 24 and 9 and included 11 wins in the Big 10 conference. The Gophers won 8 straight in the conference regular season.
How did they do it?
New Gophers Make a Difference
Well, it started by adding some missing pieces. Two stars from last year’s squad returned in Nate Mason, a strong all-around guard who can drive to the paint and shoot from the outside, and Jordan Murphy, a 6’6” power forward who plays like he’s several inches taller. Murphy had double-digit double-double’s and was a major force rebounding, finishing second in the Big 10.
New to the starting five this season was Reggie Lynch – a 6’10” redshirt junior who can jump. His biggest impact was on the defensive side where he set a school record for blocked shots. In addition to the shots he blocked, he gave opponents plenty to think about when they drove into the paint. He had 11 blocked shots in one game, and was averaging about 3.5 blocks per game. He can get into early foul trouble, but when he stays in the game, he can be a force to reckon with.
Perimeter defense also improved with the addition of true freshman Amir Coffey. Coffey, a tall 6-7” wingman, presented a difficult target to shoot over. He also contributed strongly on the offensive side as the second leading team scorer. He played more minutes per game than any player in the Big 10.
Akeem Springs a graduate transfer, who won’t be playing in the NCAA Tourney because of an Achilles injury, provides some outside shooting and senior leadership in the locker room. In a game against Maryland, he scored 23 points. The Gophers will need to find a way to replace his scoring as they move forward.
Most Improved Team
This year’s Gopher team had the single biggest win improvement moving from just 7 wins last season to 24 wins this season. And, the good news for maroon and gold fans, is that this is a very young team. The only senior graduating who logged any significant time is Springs. The Gophers are in the top 50 of 351 teams in terms of youth.
The youth movement doesn’t stop with the players. Despite coaching the Gophers for 4 years, head coach Richard Pitino, age 34, is still one of the youngest coaches of a major conference team. With an NIT Championship won in his first year, Pitino should be ready for the NCAA tournament. Having apparently learned a lot from his dad, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Richard has basketball in his blood.
The Gophers, having rebounded from a dismal 2016-16 season, and overcome a 5 game losing streak in the Big 10, seem poised to take their game to a higher level in the tournament.
Minnesota Gophers vs. Middle Tennessee State Match-Up
The Minnesota Gophers received what many believed to be a very generous seed – a #5 in the South. The selection committee’s seeding was questionable especially considering the Badgers only received a 8 seed after beating the Gophers twice during the season. However, in the first round the Gophers take on Middle Tennessee State, who strengthened their rep by upsetting Michigan State in last year’s tournament. Middle Tennessee State quickly became a favorite upset pick by bracketologists, and they’re a 1 point favorite with Vegas Sports Books.
The loss of Springs to the Gophers is big because the team is not that deep. But, they have a lot of the ingredients for a team to succeed in the tournament. Solid guard play, good defense and a big time shot blocker will give Middle Tennessee State everything they can handle and more. Look for the Gophers to continue to surprise – if you can say that about a 5 seed beating a 12 seed – with a victory today.
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