Written By Sam Ekstrom (ColdOmaha.com)
Photo Credit: Sam Ekstrom, Brian Curski
Down by seven in the second half of two consecutive Big 10 road games, the Minnesota Gophers could’ve folded.
Instead, a pair of comebacks has them positioned to enter the Top 25 with a win Sunday over Ohio State (0-2 in conference play).
“I like if you can find a way to play the disrespect card,” head coach Richard Pitino said Saturday, channeling his inner Mike Zimmer. “You’re going to use it as best you can, so I like not being ranked. I don’t want to be ranked. Keep us out of it.”
That may not be possible if the Gophers keep turning heads. In a suddenly wide open conference – with upstart Nebraska jumping to 3-0 and former top-five power Indiana beginning 1-2 – Minnesota finds itself jockeying, not only for a seat at the big boys table, but for a chance to spot themselves a game or two lead in the early-season standings.
The Gophers looked comfortable on the road this past week, and they’ll continue to be tested in unfriendly gyms during their most road-intensive stretch of the season. Their brief homestand against Ohio State turns into two more road games at Michigan State and Penn State, making Sunday’s tilt with the Buckeyes even more critical.
While it seems like there’s no conference game the Gophers aren’t capable of winning, there are likewise no games they are immune from losing on the remainder of the slate. As many wins as they can bank up now, they’ll need later on.
“I don’t know how you really handicap it,” said Pitino of the parity-driven Big 10. “I think the biggest thing you’ve got to do is you win at home, obviously, because it’s so hard to win on the road. We’ve been fortunate enough to get two early.”
Minnesota got those wins because it refused to cave. Against Purdue, junior Nate Mason flipped a switch and took the game over. In Evanston, it was the eldest Gopher, Akeem Springs, and one of the team’s youngest, Amir Coffey, who combined for a 10-0 run to go from down 47-40 to up 50-47. “We knew that teams would make a run, and we just had to be ready for the runs that the opposing team makes and not get flustered by it,” said center Reggie Lynch. “Just keep our heads on straight and understand that it’s a game of runs, and that we will be able to make our run if we execute.”
“I think they were believing in themselves,” said Pitino. “There’s timeouts when they’re talking to each other, and they’re confidently believing in it. As a coach, you’re going to spew the same things during timeouts, ‘Stay together, be tough,’ and so on, where they’re truly believing it.”
Minnesota is a perfect 3-0 this season when trailing at halftime, having beaten Texas-Arlington, Vanderbilt and now Northwestern.
Konate More Comfortable
A year ago, Bakary Konate was miscast as a starting center, playing over 21 minutes per game and struggling to make an impact on the offensive end. With the additions of big men Eric Curry and Reggie Lynch, he’s found a more suitable role off the bench as a defensive specialist who uses his 6-foot-11 frame and long arms to offer a rim-protecting presence for short bursts.
Without the burden of having to be a scorer, Konate has seemingly taken great strides as a defender. He’s averaging 13.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per 40 minutes. “I think Coach wants us to be very solid defensively,” said Konate. “We have the size, the length, the athleticism.”
The Mali native has played a bigger role, at times, than even he might’ve expected because of foul trouble. Lynch fouled out of the team’s first two games, giving Konate pivotal minutes in crunch time. Against Michigan State, Konate clamped down on dominant forward Nick Ward, who’d been controlling the second half and stopped him on consecutive possessions late in the game.
In the Purdue game, Konate got extended minutes but was too aggressive and fouled out in just 20 minutes of play, the third Gopher to foul out in the game.
Pitino loves the effort from Konate, as long as he’s playing smart. “He plays really hard, and he’s very, very physical — sometimes too physical,” said Pitino. “Just continues to work really hard and get better, so I’m happy for him.”
ADVICE FOR FLECK
Pitino now has some company as a 30-something coach taking over a major-conference program. The Gophers hired Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, 36, to run their football team, about four years after they hired the 30-year-old Pitino to replace Tubby Smith.
When asked to give Fleck some advice, Pitino had a quip ready. “Tell him to fill up his gas tank,” he said, referencing his own run-in with the university budget. A spending report in 2016 revealed that Pitino had not returned multiple rental cars with a full tank of gas.
Richard Pitino’s advice to PJ Fleck: “Tell him to fill up his gas tank.” pic.twitter.com/ogE110ISYo
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) January 7, 2017
But the now-34-year-old coach went on to say he thinks the hire is a “home run.”
“I think he’s got unbelievable energy, enthusiasm,” said Pitino. “You can tell his players love him. That’s probably the most important thing. I think he’s gonna do ridiculously well.”
Pitino came to Minnesota via Florida International, so he’s experienced the jump from low Division I to the rigors of the Big 10. As someone who’s already been through the ringer with multiple athletes transferring, off-the-court disciplinary issues and local recruiting challenges, Pitino understands that there’s no replacement for experience.
You don’t know what you don’t know.
“The more you’re in it, the more weird things pop up that there may not be a manual for,” said Pitino. “I would say as a young coach, that’s probably the only thing that experience doesn’t allow unless you have it. I’m sure [Fleck] will surround himself with a great staff and help him with those things.”