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Chad Graff | St. Paul Pioneer Press | January 9, 2017

Minnesota ranked for first time in nearly four years

  Minnesota (15-2) came in at No. 24 in Monday's latest AP Top 25 poll.

For the first time in nearly four years, Minnesota men's basketball is ranked in the top 25 in the Associated Press poll, an astounding feat considering the team lost 23 games last year, the most in program history.

Off to a 15-2 start, and with three straight Big Ten Conference wins, the Gophers cracked the national rankings Monday at No. 24, one of three ranked Big Ten teams. They hadn't appeared in the national rankings since February 2013 during Tubby Smith's final season.

It's the first time in Richard Pitino's coaching career that he has guided a team with a national ranking, something he downplayed after the Gophers beat Ohio State 78-68 Sunday night at Williams Arena.

"Rankings mean absolutely, 1,000 percent nothing to me," he said.

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More important, Pitino said, is the Ratings Percentage Index (where the Gophers rank fifth), which takes into account a team's opponents, and plays a large role in whether teams make the NCAA tournament as at-large bids. The Gophers also rank eighth in strength of schedule and share the early Big Ten lead with Purdue, Michigan State and Nebraska, all with 3-1 conference records.

"RPI means something to me. Strength of schedule means something to me," Pitino said. "We have a top 10 strength of schedule in the country, and we've got a top 10 RPI in the country. Where we're at in the conference is phenomenal.

"But again, we've got a long, long way to go. Rankings are for the fans. I'm happy that we're ranked. But that's not our goal."

Still, it's a noteworthy achievement considering the team's 8-23 record a season ago.

"We obviously didn't have a good year; we obviously had some issues off the court," Pitino said. "We took ownership of them and we got better from it. We didn't point fingers and say, 'It's his fault, it's his fault.' It was our fault. It's on me. We got better from it. We didn't sit there and say, 'Everything is fine.'

"But I will say we had to take it from a lot of people. We had to band together and get closer because of it. I'm not saying that the criticism was wrong -- rightfully so. That's what happens when you lose games. You deserve to get criticized. And when you don't do your job off the court, you deserve to get criticized. But with that being said, we had to sit there and we had to take it. We're not a boastful program. So we just wanted our talking to be done on the court."

"I think our fans appreciate the way that we play. So I'm extremely proud of our guys. I think they've taken ownership and they're reaping the rewards of that. It's nice to see."

A big reason for the turnaround: six newcomers, including starters Amir Coffey and Reggie Lynch.

Coffey became the best in-state recruit to join the Gophers in years and has lived up to his high billing, averaging 12.8 points a game, second most on the team. His dunk through traffic Sunday night made highlight reels.

MORE: Everything we expected, didn't expect from first half of the season

"We put a lot of work in during the offseason, and added some new pieces," Coffey said. "We've been working hard, so to see a packed house and a lot of fans coming to watch us play feels good."

Coffey was named the Big Ten's freshman of the week for the second time after scoring 17 points in a win over Northwestern and 19 points in Sunday's win over the Buckeyes.

This article is written by Chad Graff from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.