Gophers coach Richard Pitino not calling for counsel during seismic season shift
ST PAUL—The Gophers are not the first college basketball program to deal with absent players, so coach Richard Pitino said he isn't calling on colleagues to provide advice or comfort during Minnesota's rough past month.
"We've all had seasons where we've had things out of our control," Pitino said. "There is such a fine line between a good season and a mediocre season, and a lot of it has to do with being healthy" and eligible to play.
Since losing Reggie Lynch to a suspension and playing mostly without Amir Coffey because of a shoulder injury, the Gophers have lost eight of nine games, including a season-worst five in a row, heading into the Tuesday, Feb. 6, game against Nebraska at Williams Arena.
"A lot of it is getting lucky, and I think coaches understand that," Pitino said. "Fans and media may not always understand that. I'm sure they do understand that — they may not want to understand it. I don't need advice on this one. I understand it. It's just a matter of keeping our guys positive and getting them to understand that 'Let's compete to the very, very best of our ability,' and I thought we did that against Michigan."
The Gophers (14-11, 3-9 Big Ten) took the No. 24 Wolverines to overtime on Saturday before falling 76-73 in Ann Arbor. Any sort of moral victories would have been dismissed outright a month ago, when the Gophers peaked at No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 in late November, or when they were 13-3 on Jan. 3, but that reasoning makes sense now.
"Yeah, it's crazy. It's hard," Pitino said of the shift in storyline. "I thought two years ago, as difficult as losing was, we really felt like we were building, we really felt like we were building towards a team last year and this year."
After enduring an 8-23 bottoming out in 2015-16, the Gophers rebounded to 24-10 and made the NCAA tournament.
"We really felt like, 'OK, this is going to be our year where we can make a run at the Big Ten title and we could go deep in the tournament,' we felt that," Pitino said Monday. "Then for it to change just in the middle of the season is really, really hard, so I'm not going to act like it's not difficult. But you got to accept it, you've got to move on and you've got to compete your butts off for each other."
Pitino said it would have been "normal" for all-Big Ten senior guard Nate Mason to go into woe-is-me mode with Lynch and Coffey sidelined.
"I haven't seen it, to be honest," Pitino said. "Maybe one or two bad days, but for the most part he has been very, very businesslike and he's playing well. He is playing to win; he's not just playing for himself."
The Cornhuskers (17-8, 8-4), winners of three straight, handed Minnesota its first conference loss, 78-68, on Dec. 5. That defeat came with Lynch and Coffey in the fold.
"They absolutely out-toughed us, were just more physical than we were, offensively as well as defensively," Pitino said.
Despite that head-to-head example and the collective precedents, Big Ten Network's Tom Dienhart put an "upset alert" on the matchup Monday. "The Huskers need to be careful when they travel to The Barn," Dienhart wrote. "Minnesota is still short-handed, but it's playing a little better, evidenced by its overtime defeat at ranked Michigan."
Gophers guard Dupree McBrayer added, "We are trying to change the story."
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