MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When the end of the season arrived, the Minnesota Gophers were worn out.
They could hardly be faulted for their fatigue. Executing this turnaround was going to require a lot of work.
With eight straight victories to recover from a 3-6 start in Big Ten play, Minnesota finished with its first winning conference record since 2005 and its best mark in 20 years since the program’s only Final Four appearance.
The Gophers (24-10) were swiftly eliminated from the NCAA Tournament on Thursday by Middle Tennessee, one of only two higher seeds to lose among the 16 games on the first day, but the 16-victory improvement from the previous season was the best in Division I.
“We just kind of ran out of gas,” coach Richard Pitino said after the 81-72 defeat by the Blue Raiders in Milwaukee .
Pitino relied heavily on his top seven players, a rotation that dropped to six when shooting guard Akeem Springs hurt his right Achilles tendon in the Big Ten tournament opener. When Reggie Lynch again found himself in foul trouble against Middle Tennessee, the Gophers couldn’t overcome their center’s extended absence. Point guard Nate Mason was playing through a hip injury, too.
“We were not very deep late in the season,” Pitino said, “and that caught up to us.”
After the embarrassment that was the 2015-16 season on and off the court , the Gophers quickly caught up to and passed most of their conference competitors. Just as importantly, they regained the respect of the community and the fans.
“We were able to gain it back just by playing the right way. That more than the wins and losses,” Pitino said. “Our guys can walk around campus now and be proud to wear Minnesota basketball gear. That’s what college sports are all about.”
Here are some other angles to track as the Gophers turn toward the 2017-18 season:
The Gophers went 7-8 against teams in the NCAA Tournament, including the loss to Middle Tennessee. Winning at Purdue, Northwestern and Maryland and later reaching the Big Ten semifinals helped establish a deeper sense of confidence that ought to continue to guide them next March.
“It’s a different time of year,” forward Jordan Murphy said. “Teams are going to give you their best shot no matter what. I’ll take away that.”
Springs was the only senior among the regulars, so the Gophers will be loaded with potential when they return to the court. Mason and Lynch will be seniors along with backup center Bakary Konate. Murphy and shooting guard Dupree McBrayer will be juniors. Small forwards Amir Coffey and Eric Curry will be sophomores. Power forward Davonte Fitzgerald, a transfer from Texas A&M who missed the season with a left knee injury, will join the rotation as a junior.
“They raised the expectations so quickly,” Pitino said, “and next year it’s going to be even more, obviously, when you have almost everybody back and you’ve got some exciting recruits coming in.”
The Gophers will add two acclaimed freshmen to the backcourt in the fall: shooting guard Jamir Harris and point guard Isaiah Washington. Harris was ranked fourth among all 2017 recruits from New Jersey by ESPN.com. Washington was ranked 64th nationally by Scout.com, considered the best point guard in New York.
Lynch was second in the country with an average of 3.45 blocked shots per game, an invaluable weapon for the interior defense, but he also fouled out of eight games and was limited to an average of 23.2 minutes per game largely because of his foul trouble. For him and the Gophers to take a step forward next season, he’ll have to continue to be smarter about the way he defends the rim.
“I’ve definitely become a better defender, especially with not fouling in general and knowing when to block shots and knowing when it’s not really necessary,” Lynch said. “It shows how much I’ve improved as a player, and it’s not just me. There are so many other players on our team who’ve just improved in so many ways.”
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