Tonight Minnesota will gather in Minneapolis to find out the who, when, and where of their NCAA Tournament experience. It’s been four years since the Golden Gophers were in the Big Dance and this will be the first trip for Head Coach Richard Pitino as well as the players in his locker room.
“I have never been in the tournament, so I really don't know what it’s like,” said junior All Big Ten guard Nate Mason after the loss to Michigan.
“I know we can't start off like we did today against any team. We got to be locked in from the jump ball, be able to play defense on the defensive end.”
Minnesota had a load of trouble stopping Derrick Walton Jr off ball screens as Michigan sent screens at Mason all game long. Mason wasn’t able to get over or through the screen and Minnesota’s bigs did not do the job that Coach Pitino wanted.
“It wasn't a whole lot to do with the guards,” said Pitino. “The bigs were not getting their hands up. We tell them, after one of the media timeouts, you have two deflections, that's a problem. Over the next four minutes, we got seven.
“Our hands weren't active enough. They make you pay. That's what they do. They have terrific offensive personnel.”
Minnesota is short-handed with Akeem Springs now out for the season. They played a six man rotation yesterday with guards/wings Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, and Amir Coffey playing 119 of the 120 minutes at the three backcourt positions.
“To have Nate and Dupree not get a sub, Amir only gets one minute out of the game, was obviously very, very challenging,” Pitino said. “It was difficult off a one-day prep.
You feel so bad for Akeem and his injury. But from a team standpoint, it's very challenging. You have less than a 24-hour turnaround, to get guys kind of in the right spot. Some time off will help. We'll be able to acclimate some other guys, be able to go to the bench a little bit more.”
That help will be freshman Michael Hurt who played one minute, and/or sophomore wing Ahmad Gilbert who started six games a year ago but is now not in the rotation.
“We're a totally different team now with Akeem out,” Pitino continued. “Akeem was a starting two. Whenever Nate needed a sub, we put Dupree at the one, assigned Akeem to the two. Totally different team. I'm extremely disappointed with Akeem that he has to go through that.
“But we're going to have to start teaching some guys some different positions. That was a huge blow. He was a starter, playing a lot of minutes.”
Now the focus turns to the NCAA Tournament. Gopher fans have spent all morning speculating if this team deserves a five, six, or a seven seed. The lack of a ranking and the loss to Michigan yesterday point closer to a six or maybe even a seven but Coach Pitino seems happy to be in the tournament more than anything.
“That's not my decision,” said Pitino about where his team should be seeded. “If it was, I'd say we deserve a one seed. But it's not, so…
“I'm just excited that we're in it. I'm fired up. As disappointing as it is for Akeem to go down, to see a guy that's so important to us, for his career to end, it was emotional for everybody. Then to come back, guys had to play a lot of minutes.
“I want these guys, when they get on the plane, to flush all that. Close the book on the Big Ten tournament, get excited about the NCAA tournament.
“Wherever they put us, whoever we play, we're going to be really, really excited. We'll be proud of what we accomplished this year and be excited about moving forward.”