Richard Pitino coached a basketball game inside a football stadium, spoke to reporters at midnight and then departed to watch some film and construct a gameplan before his team flew out to take on Ohio State in the Big Ten opener.
What a way to wrap up the month of November.
“I don’t believe it’s December yet,” said Pitino, just minutes after his Gophers beat Oklahoma State 83-76 at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I don’t know the date. Is it December?”
The Gophers beat their fourth power-conference opponent Friday night when they dispatched of the Cowboys in a dry run for April’s Final Four in the home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. While the culmination of the NCAA Tournament is still four months away, Minnesota has taken nearly every opportunity to bolster their postseason resume within the season’s first month, and they did so without starting center Eric Curry, who underwent minor knee surgery before the season.
Minnesota beat Utah on Nov. 12 at Williams Arena, took down Texas A&M and Washington in the Vancouver Showcase and, on Friday, upended Oklahoma State on the back of senior star Jordan Murphy’s 24 points and 16 rebounds.
Most importantly, the Gophers (6-1) responded to their only hiccup of the season, a loss at Boston College on Monday when the offense stagnated in the second half.
“We’re not always going to be a beautiful team,” said Pitino. “That’s not what we need to be. We need to just scratch and claw, play tough defense, rebound the ball, make these winning plays that we’re doing. Doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. But I think [Friday] was our best game yet.”
The Gophers got 15 critical points from sophomore Isaiah Washington and 17 solid minutes from Matz Stockman, who spelled struggling freshman Daniel Oturu. Murphy tied the school’s double-double record at 51 for his career and positioned himself at 999 career rebounds, one shy of the hallowed 1,000 mark.
It’s unclear whether Minnesota will get Curry back to aid the front court for the first two Big Ten games. If not, he’ll be missed as conference play begins against No. 16 Ohio State.
And will the Gophers have anything left in the tank?
Minnesota’s Vancouver trip included three games in four days, their flight to Boston College followed the eventfulness of the Thanksgiving holiday, and the U.S. Bank Stadium Classic involved an altered practice schedule and new environment leading up to the game.
“There’s definitely not as much recovery time,” said junior Michael Hurt. “I think last year, though, just the way the season was scheduled it was so much more compact, so I think that has kind of prepared us for this kind of stretch where we’re gonna have four games in eight or nine days. I think it’s for sure harder to recover, but we’ve just got to push through.”
The Big Ten added two additional conference games in early December starting last season, forcing the Gophers to regroup quickly following a taxing — yet gratifying — opening salvo. After Ohio State, they host Nebraska on Wednesday in their first true home game in 23 days.
“I think it’s huge with momentum, being 6-1,” said Murphy, “obviously coming off a win going into Sunday and then again on Wednesday, we definitely just got to pay attention to the scouting report and gameplan coach has set out for us and just be ready.”
The Gophers have gotten a huge boost from freshman Gabe Kalscheur in the first seven games as he shot 55 percent from 3-point range and hit a game-winning shot to beat Washington Vancouver. Junior Amir Coffey is still adjusting, however, to a more prominent role as a ball handler, and senior Dupree McBrayer is looking to rediscover his moxie after an injury-plagued junior season.
Murphy? He’s been phenomenal.
But the Gophers have won half a dozen games, arguably without playing their best basketball. They’ll need to continue the ascent now in Big Ten play; no time to rest following a busy month of cross-country flights and big-name opponents.
“We haven’t even played anywhere near our best basketball yet, even our wins over Washington and A&M, we kind of had to scratch and claw our way to get wins,” said Hurt, “but we’re starting to show some strides, and hopefully if we keep trending upwards we’ll start playing our best basketball towards January and February.”