WASHINGTON, D.C. — Here was the face of the new Minnesota. Center Reggie Lynch standing in front of his locker, shrugging about a bloodied front tooth that had to be popped back into place during the game after a Michigan State elbow had knocked it backward.“They asked me if I wanted to wear a mouthguard,” he said. “I’m not really a mouthguard wearer. I said, 'I’ll do without it.’’’
So he did; 16 points, five blocked shots, a 63-58 win over Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament, as this stunning rise from the ashes continues. The Minnesota Golden Gophers might be the nation’s best kept secret.
This Big Ten is thought to be light on national championship contenders. With the passing of Purdue in overtime Friday, the league might not have one team seeded in the top four in any region. Not one. No shortage of compelling stories, though.
You’ve heard about the Hollywood ride of Northwestern, to the very doorstep of its first-ever NCAA tournament invitation.
You’ve heard the new folk tale of the Michigan Wolverines, running for their lives away from a crashed jet one day, winning by 20 points in their practice jerseys the next, upsetting Big Ten champion Purdue the day after that.
But have you heard the one about the rags-to-respectability Gophers?
“I think we’ve got a pretty special story, too,” coach Richard Pitino said Friday night.
One year ago, they showed up at the Big Ten tournament with only five scholarship players because of suspensions and injuries and were promptly routed by 33 points by Illinois, finishing 8-23.
“There was nothing more demoralizing,” Pitino said.
One year later, they outmuscled Michigan State on Friday, with firm resolve and bent front tooth, to push their record to 24-8. They have lost just once since January.
“I walked out of the elevator today, there was our band, our cheerleaders,” Pitino said. “I don’t remember anyone there playing songs last year. Maybe they did, I don’t know. I might have gone out the back door.”
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Most of the current players in his rebooted program had no part in that mashing last year. But Jordan Murphy did. He started, played, endured the blowout. One year later, he had 10 points and 13 rebounds against the Spartans.
“It seems like such a long time ago,” he said. “This means a lot to me. We lost by 30 on national television. That was honestly embarrassing.”
How remarkable is this revival? Consider the Big Ten coach of the year award. How could the man who finally found the magic to lead Northwestern to the NCAA tournament not be the winner, by a landslide? But Chris Collins wasn’t.
Richard Pitino was. It was his program that traveled this season at warp speed.
“We did believe we were going to be a good team," he said. "We just felt like we were going to have to eat crow for a couple months. Internally, we believed we were really going to make a huge jump.
“We ended a season with nobody really believing in us. I’m not sure they should have. We just dealt with it, we believed in what we were doing, we turned it around.”
They’ve done it with new purpose and new faces, and the results could not be more striking. But has anyone out there noticed? The Gophers don’t think so.
Listen to All-Big Ten first-team guard Nate Mason:
“We feel like we’re one of the most disrespected teams in the country. We’ve come here to earn our respect.”
Listen to Murphy:
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder. We came from humble beginnings last year. We just know nothing’s guaranteed, and nothing’s going to be given to us. No one respects us. Absolutely no one. We’re overlooked, we’re under-rated. It annoys us that we’re overlooked so much.”
Listen to freshman guard Amir Coffey:
“We don’t really feel like a secret. We just go out there and play, let all the other stuff take care of itself.”
Pitino said the motto for the season was “respect,” but not from the outside world.
“Obviously we didn’t get it done on the court last year or off the court. A big thing we talked about is taking ownership of who we are, what we’re all about, and respecting a terrific once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, I would say after winning 24 games, winning nine of 10, I think it’s morphed into a little bit of the other thing.”
The no-respect strategy. It’s used in more locker rooms than ice.
“I’m not big on all that lack of respect stuff, but I know our guys are feeling it,” Pitino said. “I think they’re excited about getting people’s respect and the only way you do it, it’s not through talk, it’s through play on the court. You’ve got games like this where you beat a great Michigan State team, you start earning respect.”
Anyway, he doesn’t mind his players creating their own edge. It’s come in handy, and it might again soon.
“Whatever gets them to play hard, I’ll roll with,” he said. “We know we’ve got a good basketball team. You don’t win eight in a row, you don’t not lose in February, and not have a good team.”
The only dark cloud Friday was the loss of guard Akeem Springs to an Achilles injury. The Gophers will miss him. But they play on, against Michigan’s band of survivors Saturday and then whatever else is ahead, including the NCAA tournament.
“Toughness wins for us,” said Pitino, and maybe that’s what he liked so much about the Michigan State game. It was another display that Minnesota is made of sterner stuff. Lynch talked playing through a bent-back tooth as if it were acne.
“I got hit in the face a couple of times before the tooth got knocked, out so I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “The tooth just shows how these games are, especially this time of year.”
When the Big Ten announced individual season awards this month, the Gophers had four players named. That’s only one fewer than they had scholarship players in uniform a year ago. A full-blown rebirth.
“This," Pitino said Friday, "is what March is supposed to be all about."