It is hard to believe that only a bit more than a year has passed since a Minnesota basketball season that had included only eight victories managed to turn exponentially worse. Coach Richard Pitino saw no choice but to suspend three players, all important to the future of the program, for what little remained of the 2015-16 season after it was found they’d violated team rules.
Exactly which rule covered the posting of a sexually explicit video on social media accounts is unclear.
The recovery from that disaster, though, is obvious on the right side of your NCAA Tournament bracket: Minnesota opens its first NCAA Tournament in four seasons at 4 p.m. Thursday against Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee State.
“It comes up in my mind a little bit, but not much anymore,” Gophers point guard Nate Mason, one of the three, told Sporting News. “Yeah, when it happened, I was in a dark place. I was embarrassed, but I learned to get over it and I got over it. And luckily we’re here.”
The simplest thing for Mason and backcourt partner Dupree McBrayer to do after that degree of public discomfiture: leave. Transferring is rampant in college basketball now, for reasons far less palpable than having your name in the paper for involvement in such a circumstance.
The last of the three, guard Kevin Dorsey, was reinstated to the program in April but decided soon afterward to depart. He wound up at Colorado State.
Mason remained and became an All-Big Ten first-team player. McBrayer remained and became the Gophers’ most important reserve (that is, until shooting guard Akeem Springs was injured in the Big Ten Tournament and McBrayer entered the starting lineup). Those two and forward Jordan Murphy were joined by transfers Reggie Lynch and Springs and freshmen Amir Coffey and Eric Curry in a rotation that achieved one of the great turnarounds in college basketball history: from 8-23 to 24-9.
“Truthfully, I thought we’d be significantly better,” coach Richard Pitino told SN. “But it was really difficult to go to the Big Ten Tournament with three players suspended, Joey King broke his foot —with really no chance to win. That’s a tough pill to swallow just because this is an exciting time of year for everybody.
“That was really hard, but I did believe in a little bit of lose the battle, win the war. I thought keeping those guys suspended was the best thing for them and for our program, and I thought that everybody would learn from it and grow from it. I was excited about the transfers we had sitting out. I was excited about the recruiting class. I thought all the pieces would fit. How that would quantify in wins and losses, I didn’t know, but I thought that we’d be taking a significant step forward.”
Minnesota opened with six consecutive victories, including a thrashing of UT Arlington that impressed Pitino and a 14-point win over Arkansas that was easier for the public to appreciate. Vanderbilt became another of the Gophers’ victims on the way to a 12-1 start.
“The competitiveness day-in/day-out to start the season was crazy,” Springs said. “That’s when I knew we had a chance.”
The Gophers win with length that fuels the No. 17 defense in college basketball. With Lynch swatting back 3.5 shots per game —he was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year — they reject a greater percentage of opposing shots than all but two other teams. The offense is not as emphatic in part because long-range shooting is not a specialty, particularly now with Springs and his team-leading 67 3-pointers gone to the bench with a season-ending Achilles injury. But Mason is a dynamic creator who averages 15.5 points and 5.0 assists and keeps the ball flowing to the right spot.
Perhaps the most important target is forward Jordan Murphy, who was muddling through an uninspiring sophomore season —including single-figure scoring performances in four consecutive losses and just 10 points as that streak grew to five against Maryland —when Pitino decided he needed some personal attention.
“We kind of had a come-to-Jesus meeting, to be honest,” Pitino said. “He sat down in my office and he started a conversation with, ‘I don’t touch the ball enough in the post.’ And I immediately interrupted him and told him, ‘That’s the problem right there, that the first thing you’re going to tell me is post touches. If you start thinking less about that, you will score more. If you focus on what you did last year—because we never talked about touching the ball in the post last year. You just went and rebounded the ball and got dunks in transition, got offensive rebounds and were attacking the rim. You were an all-freshman player.’
“To his credit, he listened. He didn’t fight me on it. And he’s been one of the best forwards in the league because of that.”
Over the season’s final 10 games, Murphy averaged 16.8 points and 12.2 rebounds and the Gophers closed with an 8-2 record in those games.
In February, Minnesota beat Iowa in double-overtime, Indiana on a buzzer-beating follow-shot by Springs and Michigan in overtime. They’d lost close games as they plunged from 15-2 to 15-7; they won those games as they surged from 15-7 to 24-9.
“We just at the end of the games were not executing, and I tried to put the ownership on the guys,” Pitino said. “It’s uncomfortable for young people to take ownership of their play; nobody wants to look themselves in the mirror. If you miss a free throw, ‘It’s not my fault.’ But what was great about our players, they put their foot down, said ‘Coach, you’re right. If we do win these close games it’s because we broke through.”
This is Pitino’s fifth season as a college head coach, and it is the first he will close in the NCAA Tournament. It’s easy to forget he got this job without having reached the tournament at Florida International.
He went 18-14 in his first season as a Division I head coach and the Minnesota administration took a leap of faith to hire him; but Pitino could have stayed at FIU,learned a lot more and exchanged his considerable brand and potential for a different position. He took a leap, too. And not everything has been a breeze.
His first team won the NIT championship, but building with new recruits took the Gophers far deeper in reverse than might have been expected. And as bad as 8-23 was, it turned worse in the end.
Who could have known that was merely the setup for one of this season’s brightest stories?
“It’s been a rewarding season,” Pitino said. “When I was at FIU, I was excited about learning and growing at a place when no one was watching. Well, when Minnesota called me, the job wasn’t even on my radar at all … but who am I to pass up that opportunity?
“We had a really good first year, but I knew it was going to take time to build. I thought everybody internally understood we were going to take a step back in year there. But that’s not easy to go through. I’m glad we stuck to the plan.”