Gopher basketball team turning in Minnesota 'feel-good' story
MINNEAPOLIS—Richard Pitino's commute took more than 90 minutes Tuesday morning as the Gophers men's basketball coach pumped his brakes to manage the snow and slop that pounded his path to the University of Minnesota.
The same could be said for how Pitino is navigating his program's rapid transformation from campus black sheep and Big Ten basement diggers to the Twin Cities' feel-good sports story of the winter, a share of the conference lead and a No. 24 ranking.
"We have not arrived," said Pitino, practically squealing to a stop. "We've got a long, long way to go."
The chief of the "fun police" acknowledged trying to tamp down hype that is growing since the Gophers vanquished three straight conference foes after dropping an overtime heartbreaker to Michigan State in the Big Ten opener.
They get another crack at the Spartans on Wednesday night in East Lansing, Mich. But the Gophers' complete redemption is ongoing and will be judged beyond the standings.
Minnesota has not purged the memory of a 23-loss 2015-16 season, a bottoming-out tainted further by the suspensions of four players, three linked to a sex video released to a former player's social media accounts in March, another after being arrested on suspicion of sexual misconduct in May.
Pitino will not allow his players to whitewash the misery on the court, or their off-court responsibilities to themselves and the university, following an offseason of critical examination and self-improvement.
"They're a pretty humble group, and a lot of that probably has to do with what they dealt with last year," the coach said Tuesday. "As nice as it is to be ranked, and for people to talk good about us, it's pretty fresh in everybody's mind the other end of that spectrum. They don't forget that.
"We may be feeling good today, but you've got two tough road games and that whole story can change."
The perennially formidable Spartans are still trying to find their rhythm. They're smarting from a messy loss at Penn State but will have star freshman Miles Bridges against Minnesota after the big man missed the Dec. 27 game at Williams Arena because of an ankle injury.
Minnesota travels to Penn State on Saturday before archrival Wisconsin visits Williams Arena on Jan. 21. The Barn should be filled to the rafters again that afternoon, the electricity measured in decibels more than voltage.
But only if the Gophers continue playing suffocating defense and receiving balanced scoring from Pitino's most talented roster to date. They are bigger, stronger and have more depth at the key positions to survive the rugged Big Ten.
Mental toughness is acquired and chemistry established not from a coaching whiteboard, but by collectively powering through adversity. Minnesota's overtime victory over Purdue in an intense attack-counterattack game — just days after blowing a 15-point home lead to Michigan State — proved the Gophers were not a nonconference paper tiger.
They easily handled nemesis Northwestern on the road and dominated Ohio State at home from the opening tip Sunday in a 78-68 win.
Pitino has achieved total buy-in defensively after last season's depressing effort. The Gophers lead the Big Ten in holding opponents to just 38 percent shooting from the field and 29 percent from three-point range.
"He's been preaching to us that defense is going to win us games, and we locked in once we figured out he was right," junior guard Nate Mason said with a chuckle. "We've just got to stay confident on defense."
And stay out of trouble all the time.
The tire fire is still smoldering at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex despite new coach P.J. Fleck shouldering a half-mile of line from the farthest hydrant.
Gophers fans are in a heightened state of distress after last month's suspensions of 10 players for their involvement in the alleged sexual assault of a woman on campus, a short-circuited Holiday Bowl boycott and Tracy Claeys' messy firing.
"Everyone needs to understand that the cameras are on us at all times," said junior center Reggie Lynch, one of four basketball players suspended. "Nobody can slip up throughout the course of our time at Minnesota. We understand that. We just need to be the good people that we are and handle business in a professional manner."
The Gophers are fun to watch because they are exceeding expectations in a town where the professional basketball team perpetually fails to live up to its. Not only does it show in their play but their appreciation for the moment.
"This year has been the most fun I've ever had playing basketball in my entire life," said Lynch, an Edina native who transferred home after two seasons at Illinois State. "It's always great to be on a big-time team, getting big wins on the road, holding down the home court. I love playing with these guys."
It's a slippery slope to March Madness, but so far Minnesota is managing the winter just fine.