DES MOINES, Iowa — There’s a reason Jarvis Omersa has gotten so much attention despite making just nine field goals the entire season.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers freshman is a walking, talking 9-volt battery, wired with energy that often manifests itself in the form of leaping repeatedly from the bench area like he’s on a pogo stick.
Omersa stands out on this team because he is the exception. By contrast, the Gophers’ core is a steady crew of make-do, hard-working ball players that refrain from making much noise. Omersa is their unofficial hype man.
That collective personality has its benefits. The Gophers have been able to bounce back from setbacks throughout the season without hitting too many emotional valleys or getting beaten down by criticism.
“I think it’s a strength,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “I do think when you’re in the Big Ten and you’re playing 20 league games and you’re in all the outrage in today’s world you can’t get too high or too low. You really can’t, because it’s going to happen. There is no running from that part of it in our profession today, especially with social media.
“We’re playing our best basketball now, and I think a lot of that has to do with kind of the mentality of this team.”
Senior Dupree McBrayer, labeled by teammates as one of the Gophers’ newfound vocal leaders, has actually requested that Pitino calm himself down in previous games.
Calm coach, calm team.
If Tom Izzo’s now-viral outburst in Thursday’s tournament game had happened in a Gophers’ huddle, he might’ve gotten a blink in return.
“We don’t get fazed,” said McBrayer, “and I think that really helps us because even though he gets on us, we’re sitting there calm, looking at him with a blank face. I think that kind of helps us in the games.”
“Situations come where we might panic,” said freshman Gabe Kalscheur, “but we’re just straight-faced.”
This low-key approach has served the Gophers well of late but has also given off the appearance of indifference at earlier junctures of the season. At times, the Gophers have lacked a sparkplug, like when head coach Richard Pitino described them as “zombies” in the first half of their Big Ten Tournament opener against Penn State in which they started out slowly before clawing back for a win.
Gradually over the past couple years, however, Gophers’ leaders like McBrayer, Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy have gotten comfortable emoting and taking charge. All three started their careers as the quiet types. Same goes for the current freshman Kalscheur, who Pitino describes as “methodical” in his approach.
Striking the right balance between focus and fun can be tough, but Minnesota seems to have found the proper calibration in their last handful of games that have included two upsets of Purdue and, most recently, Louisville in the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s got to be chemistry on the court in the heat of battle.”
After his fifth 3 of the game against the Cardinals, Kalscheur shot a faux arrow and strummed a tune on an invisible guitar, which his teammates mimicked from the bench. Omersa, naturally, was jumping up and down.
“We were all feeling good, all feeding off each other,” said Kalscheur, “had great momentum and proud of each other.”
Pitino said he was going to encourage the team to enjoy the tournament experience. While his last NCAA Tournament qualifier was expected to make a run as a 5-seed in 2016-17, this group had less pressure as five-point underdogs against Louisville.
“I think we’ve got to play loose, we’ve got to have fun with it,” Murphy said before the tournament. “It’s a really fun time of the year. Anything can happen on any given day. I think you’ve got to expect the unexpected, just have fun.”
The Gophers played like the looser team against Louisville and earned a decisive 86-76 win. They now face a projected 10.5-point spread against the favored Michigan State Spartans. The situation feels similar to when Minnesota knocked off Purdue eight days ago as roughly 10-point underdogs in the Big Ten Tournament.
They playing-with-house-money Gophers seem to be the best Gophers.
“Enjoy it,” said Pitino. “Be excited about being in the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s got to be chemistry on the court in the heat of battle. When adversity hits, being able to talk to each other, being able to push each other, being able to address something on the court the right way talking to each other. You’re going to be better at that if you like each other and respect each other. Winning helps that. Having good kids like we do also helps that as well.”