A year ago at this time, the Golden Gophers had already begun their offseason. Following an embarrassing Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois, Minnesota had no postseason for which to prepare. The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was even a pipe dream after an 8-23 season, as were the CBI, CIT, Vegas 16 and any other forced variation of postseason basketball.
Sunday, their epic bounce back, marked by a 16-game improvement, was validated with a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers will play Middle Tennessee in the first round on Thursday in Milwaukee.
It’s now that the expectations change for head coach Richard Pitino and his young team. Until now, the Gophers have been the underdogs. Underestimated, overlooked and left for dead following their miserable campaign, Minnesota was able to come out of nowhere and surprise, not only their Big Ten opponents, but loyal fans of the team that started returning to Williams Arena. The Gophers sold out a pair of games this season and drew over 12,000 to several others. Interest had been reignited amidst the most endearing plotline in sports: a comeback story.
Interest had been reignited amidst the most endearing plotline in sports: a comeback story.
For the last three months, Pitino — who’s reached numerous Big Dances on the Louisville and Florida coaching staffs — has insisted that his players keep their focus, not look ahead and focus on the journey. The 34-year-old coach knows that most seasons end in disappoint, especially if the end result is the only criteria. “Listen, I’ve been a part of great March runs. I was an assistant coach, I went to a Final Four, I went to a couple of Elite Eights, won conference titles, and it’s fun,” said Pitino, “but the journey is better than the destination, so just enjoy the journey.”
And enjoy it they have. Having already exceeded the season’s expectations, the current assembly of Gophers brought life back The Barn, supported each other through a trying five-game losing streak in the middle of the season and appeared to be having more fun than any local hoops team in over decade.
But now that the Maroon and Gold has played itself into its most promising tournament seed since 1997, the bar has officially been raised.
Unlike past years, the Big Ten Tournament was not the most meaningful basketball of the season for Minnesota. The Gophers did not need to make a run in the conference tournament, as they seemingly have for the past 20 years, to reach the real postseason. This year, the conference tournament was essentially an obligatory stepping stone. Minnesota won a tight game over Michigan State and lost a tight game to Michigan, but neither result was as thrilling or devastating as the result of their Thursday matchup with Middle Tennessee will be.
Starting now, Pitino and Co. will be expected to deliver. No more house money. No more playing the underdog card.
“You start winning and it just changes the whole storyline,” said Pitino, “so you take the good with the bad and you just try to take it in stride.”
Since last year’s dumpster fire, the Gophers have carried a chip on their proverbial shoulder after seeing calls for the head of their coach, dismal preseason projections and many a column regarding the program’s demise.
“Coach says there’s no pressure,” said senior Akeem Springs, “that’s a part of the reason we’re a good team this year is we always feel, ‘OK, we’re still chasing something.'”
But chips have an expiration date.
Minnesota will be expected to win one NCAA Tournament game this season — maybe two — in order to satiate a suddenly hungry fan base. Next year, with most of the team returning, they’ll be expected to be even better.
The Gophers’ trek to March Madness was so thrilling because it came out of nowhere, sort of like the Vikings of 2012, the Wild of 2003 or the Timberwolves of, well, never. As the season’s exit ramp approaches, however, Minnesota’s leeway is diminishing. It’s now time to accomplish something meaningful.
Sure, it would be fun as a sports fan to perpetually live in a place of surprise and delight as your favorite teams overachieve, but unfortunately, those type of seasons only come around once in a blue moon. The Gophers just had one. It was a tremendous ride.
Now the goals will be more difficult to achieve.