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Gophers coach Pitino wants a mulligan for last year

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino coaches against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during a first round game of the 2018 Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 28, 2018. Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — After their first official practice last week, Richard Pitino offered a golf comparison for how the Gophers men's basketball coach felt about his team's prospects this season.

"So far, so good — but it's early," Pitino said. "It's the same as hitting a good drive on the range; it's not the same as the course."

Pitino learned that lesson last year as a promising 13-3 start came to a 15-17 finish. Given his and the program's success in 2016-17 — a 24-10 record and an NCAA tournament appearance — Pitino feels like a mulligan is in order.

"I love where we stand," said Pitino, the Big Ten coach of the year in 2016-17. "Two years ago, we had a terrific regular season, one of the best they've ever had. Last year, we were sitting at 13-3 after 16 games and then you know, you hear and you read things and it's, 'Oh, the bottom fell out.'

"Well, why did the bottom fall out? People who pay attention understand that, so I think that this program is really, really strong, and I like where it's going, so I think we are in great shape."

Last year's slide coincided with guard Amir Coffey's shoulder injury and center Reggie Lynch's suspension for an investigation into sexual assault allegations. Those were in addition to forward Eric Curry being lost for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his knee suffered in the preseason.

Lynch, a senior, was expelled from the U, while Coffey and Curry are healthy returnees. So is Dupree McBrayer, who fought through leg injuries a year ago. All three were key pieces on the team's NCAA tournament team

"We've got guys in this locker room that have won a lot of games, and we've got guys that have a bad taste in their mouth from last year with all those injuries," Pitino said. "I think they are hungry. I think they are excited."

After an all-Big Ten freshman season, Coffey started 18 games a year ago and missed most of the Big Ten schedule with a right shoulder injury. Pitino thought that the 6-foot-8 Hopkins product could have a strong freshman season, build on that as a sophomore and "explode" as a junior.

While that trajectory was interrupted a year ago, Pitino sees a determination in Coffey this year.

"He looks great and he has that look in his eye of a guy that wants to have a big year," Pitino said. "He's working his butt off. He looks healthy and he's obviously very, very talented, so I think he's primed for a really, really good year."

Post player Jordan Murphy found his name in sentences with hall of famer Tim Duncan after the string of double-doubles he had to start last year. The all-Big Ten selection finished with 24 double-doubles and set a school record for rebounds in a season (361).

"Obviously, production is important," Pitino said of Murphy. "He's done that and he's shown he can rebound, double-doubles with anyone in the country."

The Gophers have five and potentially six newcomers, if Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr is given a hardship waiver to play this season. That includes three true Minnesota freshmen — Jarvis Omersa, Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur — who Pitino said care a bit more about the name on the front of the jersey.

But what they can produce out of the gate is unknown.

"But that's college basketball," Pitino said. "That's the fun of it."