Gophers gear up for stretch run
MINNEAPOLIS -- Putting a recent five-game losing streak in his rear-view mirror, Minnesota Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino is touting his team's positioning as the program inches toward its first NCAA tournament appearance in four y...
MINNEAPOLIS - Putting a recent five-game losing streak in his rear-view mirror, Minnesota Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino is touting his team's positioning as the program inches toward its first NCAA tournament appearance in four years.
Pitino thinks his Gophers only need to win three of their final seven regular-season games to put themselves in good position for an at-large bid to March Madness.
"That's what I'm trying to get everybody in this town to realize," Pitino said. "This is the best shape we've been in at this point. And my first two years, we were close to making the NCAA tournament, but we didn't break through."
Though the Gophers (17-7) are just 5-6 in the Big Ten, they rank 23rd nationally in the Ratings Percentage Index, a formula the NCAA tournament committee uses to judge teams. And their strength of schedule ranks 16th in the country.
Following five straight losses in January, the Gophers have rebounded with back-to-back victories entering today's 11 a.m. game at Rutgers (13-12, 2-10), the worst team in the Big Ten.
A team that struggled mightily late in games last month has rebounded for a pair of close wins in the past week, 68-59 at Illinois last Saturday and 101-89 in double overtime over Iowa at home Wednesday.
"Coaches talked to us about those close losses we had in that losing streak," center Reggie Lynch said. "And it's basically just a couple plays that we needed to tighten up. In the grand scheme of things, it's not like a whole game or a whole mind-set (that was wrong). It was really just a two-minute stretch."
Still, the Gophers had yet another poor stretch against the Hawkeyes, blowing an 11-point halftime lead when Iowa went on an 18-3 run in the second half.
"People are going to make runs," senior Akeem Springs said. "It's a game of runs, and people are going to get their runs."
Aside from a 65-47 blowout loss at Michigan State on Jan. 11, which started the losing streak, the Gophers' other 10 conference games have been close in the waning minutes. Four of them have gone to overtime.
With that experience, Pitino hopes his team will be better suited for tight games as the season winds down.
"This is an exciting team to watch whether we win or lose," Pitino said. "We're in a lot of close games, so from a fan perspective, they're getting their money's worth. For us, hopefully that helped us mentally get tougher.
"We had some moments during that (Iowa) game where mentally we were extremely weak. When they were pressing us, our turnovers were inexplicable. But we did break through. To go on a 17-5 run in (the second) overtime showed grit and will because those guys were exhausted."
After Wednesday's game, Pitino waited in front of the scorer's table to shake hands with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. But McCaffery was having an animated conversation with the referees, upset they botched a call at the end of regulation that led to a Gophers basket that forced overtime.
Pitino admitted Friday that it was awkward waiting for McCaffery.
With 20 seconds remaining in regulation, referees awarded the Gophers possession via a jump ball even though replay showed that Iowa had been calling for a timeout, and that Minnesota's Jordan Murphy had his foot out of bounds when the jump ball was called.
"I'm one of those guys when we win, I like to talk less," Pitino said of his handshake with McCaffery. "I don't like to be the winning coach talking forever. When you lose, you don't want to talk to the coach. I don't want to hear about how good I am or how we're a great team after you beat us. I normally try to keep it quick anyway. I've got great respect for Fran, and I consider him a friend. I really like him a lot. I just wanted to shake his hand and move on."