Writer’s Block: Exciting Gophers men’s basketball future

The time of the year has come for casual and fanatical college basketball fans to fill out their NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets.

Eric Hagen

Eric Hagen

There’s even more incentive to do it right with Warren Buffet willing to give $1 billion to anyone who can fill out a perfect bracket.

All you have to do is register for free through the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket by Wednesday, March 19. The timing is interesting because the tournament technically starts Tuesday, with teams squaring off that day and Wednesday for the chance to get into the field of 64 teams starting Thursday, March 20. In recent years, La Salle and VCU have been in these “play-in” games and made deep tournament runs.

The best odds are that nobody gets every pick correct, which in that case results in the top 20 bracket creators each winning $100,000. Not a bad consolation prize.

All I’m hoping for is that the men’s and women’s Golden Gophers basketball teams make the tournament. The men’s tournament bracket will be unveiled 5 p.m. Sunday evening on CBS. The women’s tournament selection show is 6 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.

My knowledge of the women’s team is limited because they are rarely on television, but it was great seeing them come back from 16 points down to beat the Badgers and then play Nebraska tough in the Big Ten Tournament.

Nobody predicted the Gophers mens’ basketball team would make the NCAA Tournament, so in my mind they have exceeded expectations just by being “on the bubble” – a term the college basketball bracket projectors use.

I know University of Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague has been impressed with the 31-year-old coach Richard Pitino, at least as of Feb. 12, because he said so at a Blaine-Ham Lake Rotary Club meeting I covered.

“He’s been absolutely terrific his first year,” Teague said. “If you would have told me on Feb. 12 that we would have been at the point of already winning 16 games, I would have laughed at you. Because we really had and we still have a little bit of a thin roster. We have guys that are probably not the most talented in the world, but Richard has gotten every ounce of what he can get out of this group and they are really responding to him.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Teague that Pitino has done an admirable job. He won the same amount of Big Ten games (8) as Tubby Smith did last season even though Smith had extremely talented seniors like Trevor Mbwake and Rodney Williams.

Minnesota’s overall record Feb. 12 was 16-8 and its Big Ten record was 5-6. Feb. 12 was the day before the Gophers lost on the road to the Wisconsin Badgers 78-70 and that kicked off a streak of losing four out of seven games to finish the season, so Pitino was not immune from the February slide that fans criticized Smith about. But he obviously is in honeymoon period with fans for probably a couple more seasons.

What I admire the most about Pitino is his ability to motivate. Center Maurice Walker lost 60 pounds after Pitino told him he needed to lose weight to play his up-tempo style. Other players also got in better shape thanks to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown, who worked at Kentucky and the NBA’s Boston Celtics for Rick Pitino.

Richard Pitino worked for his father at Louisville and for Billy Donovan at Florida, who also came from the Pitino coaching tree. Teague said Donovan told him that Rick Pitino was the toughest on him and Richard.

“If you can handle the wrath of Rick Pitino as an assistant coach and excel you’re going to be a great head coach,” Teague said. “So I knew even though he was young, we’d be in a good place.”

Eric Hagen can be reached at  eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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