Zulgad: Gophers aren’t a finished product but progress has been made

MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers’ 5-0 start to the college basketball season came to a screeching halt on Monday night at Boston College. The Eagles easily dispatched of the Gophers, 68-56, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, creating questions about how Richard Pitino’s team would respond on Friday night against Oklahoma State at U.S. Bank Stadium.

While the Gophers were far from perfect, Pitino was satisfied with an 83-76 victory in front of an announced crowd of 12,357 in the Vikings’ home stadium. The game was part of the two-day U.S. Bank Stadium Basketball Classic that is serving as a dry run of sorts for the Final Four that will be played in the venue this spring.

Minnesota led 45-38 at halftime and increased its lead to as many as 18 with 12 minutes, 13 seconds left in the second half before the Cowboys began to rally. Senior forward Jordan Murphy led the Gophers with 24 points and 16 rebounds as five Minnesota players scored in double-figures. Freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur made 3-of-6 three-pointers and finished with 14 points and sophomore guard Isaiah Washington had 15 points and a team-high four assists.

If Pitino was unhappy that the Gophers allowed Oklahoma State  (4-3) back in the game, he certainly didn’t show it.

“We thought they would counterpunch, they are a really good team, so to be up like that and then to calm down, get a stop and make some free throws was huge for our guys,” Pitino said. “It was a terrific win. We’ve beaten a Big 12 team, two Pac-12 teams and an SEC team and I don’t believe it’s December yet. I don’t know the date, is it December? ”

Informed, at the moment, it wouldn’t be December for another hour, Pitino continued: “We’ve challenged these guys and they responded really well from the Boston College loss, took ownership and moved on, got better from it. … Quality, quality win for our guys. I’m really, really proud of them.”

Pitino, and Gophers’ coaches before him, have taken heat for nonconference schedules that included a variety of cupcakes. But that’s not the case this season. The Gophers have now beaten Utah, Texas A&M, Washington and Oklahoma State.

Pitino didn’t have much time to be proud Friday night into Saturday morning because his next assignment was waiting for him. That was going to his office to come up with a game plan for the Gophers’ Big Ten opener on Sunday at No. 16 Ohio State. Last season, the Gophers played two Big Ten games in early December in order to accommodate the fact the conference tournament was played a week sooner than usual.

This time, the Gophers, and all other Big Ten teams, are playing two conference games in early December because the league has moved to a 20-game schedule. Minnesota’s second conference game will be Wednesday against Nebraska at Williams Arena.

A year ago, the Gophers routed Rutgers in their first Big Ten game before losing at Nebraska. That defeat dropped Minnesota to 8-2 overall after a 7-0 start. There were big expectations for that team but things came apart because of injuries and suspensions. The Gophers went  from being ranked near the top 10 to finishing 4-14 in the Big Ten and 15-17 overall.

This Gophers team is far more of an unknown and Pitino is giving significant playing time to freshmen Daniel Oturu and Kalscheur. In addition to Murphy, players with experience include senior guard Dupree McBrayer (10 points, four rebounds, three assists) and junior point guard Amir Coffey (11 points, three rebounds). The Gophers are expected to get an eventual boost when sophomore forward Eric Curry returns from a knee injury that has sidelined him for more than a year.

Pitino said late Friday that he hadn’t given a lot of thought to the Ohio State game but that was about to change.

“I was just so focused on getting this win, so we’ll turn the page to Ohio State,” he said. “I watched a little bit of their Syracuse game (a 72-62 Ohio State loss on Wednesday). They’re really, really good. So we’ve got a late night tonight, got to game plan, but that was a good response. I thought (in the Gophers’ loss to) Boston College there were a lot of elements that created fatigue and we didn’t fight through it. Tonight, I thought we did. So that’s very important. So we still have got a long way to go. These Big Ten games early are good for the fans, but none of us are a finished product right now.”