Four years ago Minnesota defeated UCLA under Tubby Smith gaining their first NCAA Tournament win in 16 seasons of play. For those not watching closely the firing of Tubby after an NCAA Tournament win was puzzling, but for those paying attention to the program they knew a new coach was needed.
Tubby was fired, Richard Pitino was hired.
This week there will be a caravan of Minnesota fans traveling to Milwaukee as the Golden Gophers face Middle Tennessee State in the first round 5/12 match-up of the NCAA Tournament. With a crowd full of local supporters behind them the Gophers celebrated their selection at US Bank Stadium in the club room. When their name was called it was a reminder of the four year journey.
In year one Richard Pitino led Minnesota to 25 victories and the NIT title game. Year two was a disappointment and year three ranked with one of the worst seasons in Minnesota Golden Gopher basketball history.
Fans were disappointed and others were downright awful in their feels towards Pitino. The local media made the program out to be a joke. Inside the Gopher locker room the team stuck together using the negative attention as fuel for this 24-9 season.
How did it happen? It started with the recruiting the current juniors. Nate Mason was the first key find out of Georgia along with Bakary Konate out of Sunrise Christian plus they added transfer Reggie Lynch from Illinois State.
Mason and Konate came from Richard Pitino’s 2014 class of high school talent followed by Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer were signed in the 2015 recruiting class. The additions of Amir Coffey and Eric Curry in the 2016 group helped form the nucleus of the current rotation (along with the Lynch transfer).
The final piece brought everything together and that was the addition of graduate transfer Akeem Springs. Springs is out for the season but his leadership, defense, and three point shooting led him to the starting line-up. In his place should be Michael Hurt who is another freshman from the strong 2016 class.
This year Minnesota picked up road wins over Maryland, Northwestern, and Purdue among others. They defeated Michigan and Iowa at home in overtime. There was non-conference wins that includes Arkansas who played Kentucky for the SEC title today. Pitino’s Gophers won the non-league games they were supposed and won the Big Ten home games they were expected to win.
All of this became a 24-9 team led by Coach of the year Richard Pitino, First Team All Big Ten Nate Mason, Third Team All Big Ten Jordan Murphy, Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Lynch, and First Team All Freshmen Amir Coffey. And if the team gave out an MVP trophy today it may go to Akeem Springs.
So here we are, four days away from playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Not only will Minnesota be in the Big Dance but they will be the favorite to win. It's an exciting time to be a Gopher fan and Coach Pitino has been building for this day for the last four years.