MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Big Ten opener for Minnesota two weeks ago felt as familiar as it was frustrating.
That 15-point lead the Gophers held late in the first half at home against Michigan State vanished in what became a one-point loss, following failed final-shot possessions to win the game in both regulation and overtime. Though these Spartans weren’t as formidable as many editions past, they’re still a challenging opponent that makes for a statement victory.
”Everybody, and I get it, is going, `Here we go again,”’ coach Richard Pitino said.
Except they didn’t.
Road wins at Purdue and Northwestern were backed up with a home victory over Ohio State on Sunday night that pushed the Gophers (15-2, 3-1) into a tie for first place in the conference race. By Monday morning, they were in The Associated Press rankings for the first time in nearly four years.
The Gophers debuted in the AP poll at No. 24, their first appearance in the Top 25 under Pitino. They were last ranked the week of Feb. 4, 2013.
”It just speaks to how hard we’re working,” sixth man Akeem Springs said after scoring 18 points against the Buckeyes. ”If you read some of the stuff they said about us before the season, it’s a positive step. Sky’s the limit for us.”
Pitino has expressed wariness of such an accolade, of which there are sure to be more if the Gophers stay on track.
”I don’t want to be ranked,” he said wryly last week. ”Keep us out of it.”
The ”disrespect card” Pitino said he loves to play was never easier to find in the coach’s deck than this fall, coming off an 8-23 finish that featured the most losses in the sport’s 121-year history at the school and off-the-court trouble for multiple players on the roster. University President Eric Kaler, during his public introduction of new athletic director Mark Coyle, singled out the program with a stern admonishment of the ”continuing episodes” of misbehavior, alleged or otherwise.
”I think what we went through in the offseason made everybody mentally tougher. We had to stop listening. We had to block out that noise,” Pitino said. ”We just had to stick together. It kind of connected everybody.”
Pitino accepted the criticism from all corners and began developing a curriculum of sorts to help improve the culture surrounding his players.
”We’ve earned the respect back just by playing the right way. We have not arrived, not even close to have arrived, but I think our fans appreciate the way we play,” Pitino said. ”So I’m extremely proud of our guys. I just think they’ve taken great ownership, and they’re reaping the rewards of that.”
The Gophers, who hit the road for a rematch with Michigan State on Wednesday, have already topped their Big Ten win total of 2015-16.
”Just finishing our games,” swingman Amir Coffey said, offering the newbie’s explanation. ”Keeping our composure when teams make runs.”
Coffey’s arrival has been one of the catalysts. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday for the second time after averaging 18 points over the last two games, and he was in his element against Ohio State with an array of drives, dunks and key defensive plays. Springs, a graduate transfer from Milwaukee, has provided a seasoned scorer’s mentality off the bench. Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch, who had to sit out last season by NCAA rule, is fifth among NCAA Division I players with an average of 3.18 blocked shots per game.
Junior point guard Nate Mason, one of three players suspended for the final four games last season for a sex video that was posted to the social media accounts of since-departed teammate Kevin Dorsey, has matured into a clutch, savvy leader on the court.
”Guys are dialed in,” Pitino said. ”They understand that those little things matter. They’ve been a really fun group to coach.”
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