Minnesota was supposed to be a Big Ten-title contending team — one that could go far in the NCAA tournament last season. But that was before injuries and a suspension derailed its season. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino joined NCAA.com's March Madness 365 podcast and discussed the way the season went sideways and the optimism he has for next season.
The team could have lost Jordan Murphy to the NBA draft since he’s a double-double machine, but Murphy declined to test the process.
“He’s a very analytical kid,’’ Pitino said. “If he wanted to do it I would have supported it. But he knows he has a little ways to go. He wants to develop that jump shot and finish his senior year with a great year. We had really, really high expectations and to finish the way we did was a tough pill to swallow.’’
The Gophers were ranked in the top 15 in November only to fall completely out of the rankings with injuries to Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Nate Mason. Minnesota finished 4-14 in the Big Ten and 15-17 overall after starting January at 13-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten.
Having Murphy, Coffey, McBrayer and Eric Curry (who missed the year with a torn ACL) all healthy and the addition of Milwaukee transfer Brock Stull gives the Gophers plenty of pop and difficult matchups for opponents.
Pitino went over the injury updates on the podcast, saying Coffey, Dupree and Curry are all making great strides in their recovery but they are being limited over the summer as they recover. He fully expects all to be ready to go for the start of the season.
“I felt like we had a Big Ten contending team but it fell apart in front of us,’’ said Pitino. “It was difficult to practice (with limited numbers).’’
The Gophers will play a challenging schedule, including a game at Boston College in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, hosting Utah in a home-and-home series (with a return game in 2019), Oklahoma State at US Bank Stadium (home of the 2019 Final Four), Texas A&M in Vancouver and a 20-game Big Ten schedule for the first time.
“It will help all of us and I think it will get more teams in the tournament,’’ said Pitino of the new schedule format. “It’s another two games against a high-major opponent. That’s great for the fans and could be another quad one or two opportunity.’’