Men's basketball: Gophers won’t surprise anybody this time around
By Marcus R. FullerSt. Paul Pioneer Press CHICAGO -- Wisconsin enters the basketball season with the best team and the best player in the Big Ten, according to media and coaches' polls. But coach Bo Ryan said he doesn't have to look far for a rem...
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
CHICAGO - Wisconsin enters the basketball season with the best team and the best player in the Big Ten, according to media and coaches’ polls. But coach Bo Ryan said he doesn’t have to look far for a reminder that there are up-and-coming programs like Minnesota ready to knock the Badgers off that pedestal if they aren’t prepared.
The Gophers were the only team last season to put a double-digit beatdown on Wisconsin, a Final Four team.
“We learned from it,” Ryan said at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday.
Ryan said he has gained a lot of respect for Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, who appears to have lifted the program back into contending status in his second year.
“Winning any title is hard,” Ryan said of the Gophers’ NIT championship last season. “People should not forget that that Minnesota team played extremely well to run the table and win the NIT. Obviously, they did a pretty good job.”
A year ago, Big Ten players and coaches talked about how the 30-year-old Pitino was a talented young coach but that there was no telling whether he would have success adapting his fast-paced style of play to the Big Ten.
Nobody knew exactly what to expect. Now they do.
“Coach Pitino has done a great job taking over the team and bringing in guys who are talented,” Michigan State senior Travis Trice said. “They’re a great team from top to bottom. We expect them to be good this year.”
Minnesota and Nebraska are expected to compete for a spot behind the conference’s preseason top three: Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Cornhuskers seemed to come out of nowhere to finish fourth in the Big Ten last season after being picked in the preseason to finish last.
That won’t be the case this season for the Gophers, who are coming off a 25-win season and predicted to finish sixth in the 14-team league.
“What Richard did winning the NIT, that’s a huge accomplishment, and not easily done being a second-year (head) coach,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “The innocent climb is easy. Now, as expectations come, that’s where a coaches’ job is to manage those things.”
It will help Pitino that the Gophers are already hungry to prove themselves, senior guard Andre Hollins said Thursday.
“One thing I’ve seen as a difference from last year is how competitive we are” with each other, Hollins said. “It’s been really competitive. We’re making each other better. I remember one practice it was so intense it was fun throughout, and I didn’t want it to end.”
A healthy Hollins has been a welcome sight for the Gophers in practices. Because of a troublesome ankle injury, Hollins wasn’t even the team’s most valuable player last season.
That distinction went to newcomer DeAndre Mathieu. The senior point guard wasn’t in Chicago on Thursday, but Big Ten opponents were talking about him.
Penn State forward Ross Travis, who is from Chaska, hasn’t forgotten when Mathieu took over late in the second half with 14 of his 16 points to pull off a comeback Minnesota win in State College, Pa.
That was Mathieu’s first breakout Big Ten game, outplaying Nittany Lions standout Tim Frazier down the stretch.
“He had a really great game,” Travis said. “He kind of put Minnesota’s team on his back there.”
With Mathieu back home, Hollins and senior center Mo Walker represented the Gophers at Big Ten Media Day.
Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson said Pitino’s team could challenge for a spot in the top half of the conference if Hollins stays healthy and Walker and senior center Elliott Eliason step up in the frontcourt.
Watching Walker score a career-high 18 points against Wisconsin last season, Jackson said during the telecast of that game, “Who is that?”
That’s what Badgers center Frank Kaminsky wanted to know. Kaminsky, this year’s Big Ten preseason player of the year, won’t underestimate Walker or the Gophers again.
“We hadn’t prepared for him as well as we should have,” he said. “He had a great game. He was dominant inside. He used that going forward. We were better prepared next time around.”
Opponents expect the Gophers to be good this season. Pitino said he team is aware of how different its goals are this time around.
“Winning the NIT, nobody knows how to handle it,” he said. “Do you brag about it? Do you talk about it? Those guys are pretty focused to get in the NCAA tournament.”
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