Minnesota Golden Gophers

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No. 12 Middle Tennessee State proves itself with win over No. 5 Minnesota

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Middle Tennessee State was just better.

That may seem obvious after the Blue Raiders beat Minnesota, 81-72, in the NCAA tournament’s first round, but it bears mentioning.

Conference USA’s best team was clearly superior to the Big Ten’s second-highest seeded team in the NCAA tournament.

It was evident, it was decisive and it was without a doubt. The Blue Raiders are the real deal.

I know our players don’t think it was an upset by any means,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.

Neither did Las Vegas, which pegged the Blue Raiders as the betting favorite. Apparently, only the selection committee thought the difference between Middle Tennessee State and Minnesota was seven seed lines. Whatever the relative disparities in schedule and conference strengths, that was a mistake.

Middle Tennessee State was just better.

A 7-0 start to the game and a late run by the Gophers notwithstanding, the Blue Raiders controlled the style and substance of the game for nearly its entirety. They exerted their will and got their way at almost every turn.

Minnesota’s strength is its interior with Reggie Lynch and Jordan Murphy one of the best one-two shot blocking tandems in the country. Middle Tennessee State went right at them, putting both in precarious foul trouble throughout the game. The Blue Raiders were savvier and stronger, forcing Lynch and Murphy to play themselves out of the game at times.

It was the same story on the glass, where Middle Tennessee truly won the game. The Blue Raiders kept Minnesota to just four offensive rebounds while pulling down 11 themselves. Most times out, you’d expect the Big Ten team to be able to out-muscle, out-tough and out-athlete a Conference USA squad, but it was the exact opposite Thursday at the Bradley Center as Middle Tennessee State stronger and deeper.

“They’re a big, strong, physical team,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We were getting tired, and they kept subbing and subbing and getting sharper as the game went on.”

Middle Tennessee State was just better.

This was no fluke or Cinderella story. This Blue Raiders team isn’t the one that shocked Michigan State last season. They didn’t need to shoot some outrageous percentage. They just needed to be themselves. That was plenty good enough.

“The only difference was last year we were a major underdog,” senior Reggie Upshaw said, “and this year everybody kind of had us either winning by 2 or losing by 2. Pretty much even matchup.

“We still kept the same mindset coming into the game. We just played our game, you know, we would be able to walk away with a win.”

Upshaw had a lot to do with it. The 6-foot-8 forward finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, but his contribution to winning went beyond numbers.

After trailing by as many as 17, the Gophers went on an 18-5 run and pulled within four on a three-point play from freshman Eric Curry. Seconds later, Upshaw responded with a 3-pointer to push the lead back to seven. After a Middle Tennessee State stop, Upshaw got another bucket, this one a layup to put the lead at nine. The Gophers scored on the next possession, but Upshaw got another bucket, keeping Minnesota far enough away that the Gophers could never close.

“He’s winning better than any player in the history of our school,” Davis said. “He made big shot, big play for the last two, three years.”

With players like Upshaw and a team like Middle Tennessee State, picking a 12 over a 5 is no upset. It’s chalk.

“When you blow the whistle, that team is a focused group, great practice team,” Davis said. “Today at game day practice right on point, and there was no doubt in their mind that they thought they were going to win the game.”

They were proved right. They were just better.

Minnesota player won’t face charges

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Minnesota junior Reggie Lynch will not face charges stemming from his May arrest on suspicion of sexual assault.

“We have insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed,’’ Chuck Laszewski, spokesperson for Hennepin (Minn.) County attorney’s office, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Lynch was arrested in May for the alleged rape of a 19-year-0ld woman in Minneapolis, but was released without charge as the incident was further investigated. He was suspended indefinitely by the Gophers upon the arrest.

“The investigation is ongoing, and it is important that we allow it to conclude before drawing conclusions,” Minnesota president Eric Kaler said in a May statement. “But let me be clear, the allegations are at odds with what we stand for at the University of Minnesota, within our athletic department and across our campus.”

Lynch sat out last season after transferring to Minnesota from Illinois State, where he averaged 9.5 points per game as a sophomore. The Gophers have not provided an update on his status following prosecutors’ decision not to file charges.

Problems piling up for Pitino in Minnesota

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When Minnesota hired Richard Pitino in 2013, he was hailed as a wunderkind with a basketball pedigree and acumen that was far more than just his last name. He was coming off an 18-14 campaign in his first season as a head coach at FIU, but he’d coached for the likes of his father, Rick Pitino, and Billy Donovan. Not to mention he was being hand picked by the man that tabbed Shaka Smart and started the famed Villa 7 consortium.

Three years later, it appears that the Gophers program is unraveling fast.

The latest in a recent string of issues for Pitino is an audit of his travel that found he’d spent triple his budget for private plane use in 2015 among other overspending issues, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

This revelation came just hours after junior Reggie Lynch was released from custody after being arrested on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct. Lynch was not charged, but police will continue to investigate and he could face charges at a later date.

Just a few months ago, three Gophers were suspended after an explicit video was posted to social media. One of them, Kevin Dorsey, decided to transfer after the season.

Athletic director Norwood Teague, of course, resigned ignominiously last summer amid a sexual harassment scandal, but not before he negotiated the terms of a contract for Pitino that gave the 33-year-old a $400,000 raise and upped his university-owed buyout to $7.1 million, despite the fact Pitino went just 43-28 overall and 14-22 in the Big Ten in his first two seasons. The Gophers went 8-23 overall and 2-16 this past season. That extension has Minnesota’s Board of Regents moving to gain approval of all high-level contracts for athletic department employees.

Minnesota still has not hired Teague’s replacement, leaving Minnesota with an interim AD.

The audit that was made public Tuesday would also appear to show Teague giving Pitino further favorable financial treatment. Pitino’s contract called for him to be allowed $50,000 for private planes but Teague authorized him to spend $100,000 in 2014 and $150,000 in 2015, according to the Star Tribune. Pitino was also said to have “unreasonable” spending on rental cars and took two “unallowable” flights because the destinations were within 200 miles of campus.

That’s a long way of saying that Pitino will be under tremendous pressure this upcoming season, but he will welcome his best recruiting class yet to the Twin Cities. He’ll likely need to show significant improvement to appease whoever his new boss is once Minnesota hires an athletic director. Putting an immediate end to the off-court issues that have plagued the program in high-profile ways will also be a priority.

The excitement of hiring a young coach with a famous name has faded fast in Minneapolis. What’s left is a program that is piling up problems with regularity and frequency.

Minnesota could opt for big lineup

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Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino is experimenting with a potentially big starting lineup this season. In a report from Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press, Pitino believes that since the Big Ten has a lot of naturally big lineups that he might need to adjust.

Pitino said that a starting lineup could include Nate Mason, Carlos Morris, Charles Buggs, Joey King and Bakary Konate. While Mason and Morris present good natural size in the backcourt, the 6-foot-9 Buggs playing at small forward could be a major change.

“In my ideal world, that’s a big lineup, pretty talented,” Pitino said to reporters on Friday. “The one thing you learn is that you make a plan and you know it’s going to change. But I like the size of that lineup. I like the speed. I like the athleticism.

“But again, if guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, you have to be willing to change.”

Seeing Pitino looking towards this lineup is intriguing since he has some talented and athletic freshman wings and guards in the mix. If Buggs and the big lineup is used, it means the Golden Gophers could be deep on the perimeter, bringing talented freshmen like Kevin Dorsey, Dupree McBrayer and Jordan Murphy off the bench.

Obviously, injuries and the way certain players respond to these lineups could change a lot before the beginning of the season, but for now, this will be something to monitor in the preseason.

Three-star forward will decide between three

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One of the July evaluation period’s biggest stock risers, Arkansas native Eric Curry, will decide between three schools this week, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

The 6-foot-8 forward from Little Rock will pick this week between Arkansas, Iowa State and Minnesota. Playing with the Arkansas Wings in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer, Curry averaged 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game playing on a very balanced team.

Over the summer, Curry showed an improved skill set and he has the capability of being a versatile forward at the next level thanks to his athleticism. While Curry has to improve his perimeter game in order to play on the wing, he has the quickness to be a matchup problem if he can add that to his repertoire.

Currently regarded as the No. 141 overall prospect in the Rivals150, Curry is coming off of a recent official visit to in-state Arkansas and the Razorbacks are hoping to keep Curry home.

Minnesota also hosted Curry for an official visit during the process and the Golden Gophers have some recruiting momentum after adding four-star in-state guard Amir Coffey this week.

Iowa State’s official visit was sandwiched in between the trips to Minnesota and Arkansas and the Cyclones are trying to find a suitable replacement for the versatility of senior forward Georges Niang.

Minnesota keeps four-star wing Amir Coffey at home

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Minnesota got one of its key recruiting targets to stay home as four-star wing Amir Coffey committed to the Golden Gophers during a Monday afternoon press conference. The 6-foot-6 Coffey, who attends Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, is currently regarded as the No. 54 overall prospect in the Class of 2016.

With the addition of Coffey, the Golden Gophers are getting a talented perimeter shooter who can knock down shots from well behind the 3-point line. While Coffey just recently returned from a torn ACL that he suffered in January that forced him to miss the spring and summer grassroots season, he’s now returned to the court and is drawing positive reviews during his comeback.

Coffey follows in the footsteps of his father Richard, who started four years at Minnesota from 1986-1990 before playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 1990-91 season.

The younger Coffey joins another in-state product, three-star small forward Michael Hurt, in Minnesota’s Class of 2016. Both Coffey and Hurt can spread the floor and hit shots and bring some good size on the wing for the future.