Gophers Show Their Best -- and Worst -- in Final Games Before Big Dance

Photo Credit: David Banks (USA Today Sports)

CHICAGO, Ill. — In less than 24 hours, the Minnesota Golden Gophers showed their Jekyll-iest Jekyll and their Hyde-iest Hyde. Their best version and their worst version juxtaposed against each other.

The latter, a 76-49 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten semi-finals, will justifiably be chalked up to fatigue as a ragged starting five couldn’t contest the Wolverines’ skill players. But in similar fashion to their other four conference losses suffered by 15 points or more, the Gophers caved to the snowball effect, rendering the entire second half mop-up time.

It’s the same team that beat Purdue the previous night with superb defensive intensity, offensive efficiency and late-game grit.

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Pitino contends that Saturday’s team “totally ran out of gas,” which isn’t invalid considering the grueling day-after-day format of the Big Ten Tournament. Perhaps there’s reason for the Gophers to believe that their regression against the Wolverines shouldn’t incite panic with the NCAA Tournament less than a week out.

“It stings,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “I don’t want them to be satisfied, but also I do want them to take a step back and say, ‘OK, we had a really good win versus Penn State, we had a really good win versus Purdue.'”

Minnesota (21-13, 11-12) locked up its third 20-win season under Pitino in six years with their Thursday win over Penn State. Friday’s win over Purdue likely bolstered their March Madness seed to an 8 or a 9. With two hard-fought wins preceding Saturday’s carnage, the week will be viewed as a net positive. Pitino said he won’t dwell on the loss, voicing a desire to throw the game tape in the river.

Still, the humbling defeat Saturday offers a lesson.

“Never be satisfied,” said freshman Daniel Oturu, “always stay hungry, just continue to find ways to play hard through a full 40-minute game.”

The Gophers’ season was filled with cold spells, including a four-game losing streak after the season’s mid-way point that jeopardized their postseason status. With a high dependence on their starting five, Minnesota’s success closely correlated with Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy’s ability to score. That’s what they did early in the Big Ten Tourney with 37 points combined against Penn State and 48 against Purdue. At no point has Minnesota had a reliable bench — they’ll be asking the same few to carry them through wherever the selection committee sends them on Sunday.

“Keep being confident, keep the grit,” said senior Dupree McBrayer. “People said we shouldn’t have made it this far, but we made it this far, so we can go in the tournament and think the same thing. I really think we can make a push.”

The Gophers have shown that their margin for error is small. Without much 3-point shooting, they have often been dependent on grinding out games one free throw, Coffey jumper or Murphy putback at a time. When working, it’s a formula that kept them with some of the Big Ten’s best in wins over Wisconsin, Purdue and Iowa and a close call at Michigan. But limited offensive options — possessing nobody like Michigan’s sixth man Isaiah Livers — have made the Gophers vulnerable to blackouts like their loss Saturday.

Injuries haven’t helped either as the absence of Eric Curry (foot) and Matz Stockman (concussion) have sapped their front court depth.

“I thought from a toughness standpoint, from a defense standpoint, from an offensive execution standpoint, we were really moving forward [before Saturday],” said Pitino. “We’ve got to take a deep breath, not overreact from this one, but learn from it.”

Still looking for his first NCAA Tournament win, Pitino remains positive about the progress his team made this year. Galvanizing to win four of five prior to the Michigan loss is reason to believe that things have clicked.

Aside from the asterisk, of course, produced by Saturday’s defeat.

“We started to have some doubt, losing games that we shouldn’t have,” said McBrayer. “We just regrouped and said, ‘Hey, we want to make it to the tournament. We’ve got five seniors who wants to go to the tournament again.'”

Compared to last year’s team that was thrown off track by suspension and injury to numerous key players, this season only produced mild adversity, but it was enough to make Pitino wonder if they had what it took to reach the ultimate destination.

“We were picked towards the bottom of the league. We needed to replace two starters, Eric Curry’s injury, Dupree’s mom, five new players. I don’t know if I would have thought that we’d be standing there with an NCAA Tournament berth.”

Barring a shocking snub, they’ll be in the 68-team field. And thanks in part to what they accomplished in Chicago, they believe they have a chance to make a splash.

“When our mindset’s right and we’re locked in, locked in to the gameplan,” said Murphy, “I think this team can really compete with anybody in the country.”

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