Minnesota Golden Gophers

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No 14 Minnesota makes early statement at Providence

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While No. 2 Michigan State is viewed as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, and rightfully so, the Spartans will not lack for competition in the title race. One team capable of challenging the Spartans is No. 14 Minnesota, and Monday night in his return to his alma mater Richard Pitino’s team put together a solid second half showing in its 86-74 win at Providence.

The biggest difference for Minnesota in the second half was their improved offensive execution, as forward Jordan Murphy had a big night with 23 points and 14 rebounds to lead the way. After getting off to a quick start, racing out to a 12-2 lead, Minnesota got a bit stagnant offensively. They took challenged shots, and as a result the Golden Gophers trailed at the half by three and had just one assist on 13 made baskets.

With improved execution and a more concerted effort to truly attack the Providence defense, Minnesota shot nearly 61 percent from the field and made four of its seven three-point attempts in the final 20 minutes. And thanks in large part to the tandem of Murphy and Reggie Lynch, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds, Minnesota was able to take advantage of its experience advantage in the front court.

It wasn’t all about the big men either, as Amir Coffey got going in the second half and finished with 15 points, Nate Mason tallied 17 and Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington added nine and eight points, respectively.

Minnesota has the talent needed to be a player both within the Big Ten and nationally, especially as lead guards Mason and Washington get more comfortable sharing the playmaking responsibilities when Pitino calls upon that lineup. But the key to Minnesota making good on that promise will be to stay aggressive offensively while not settling for forced shots. That was an issue in the first half as Providence, a good team in its own right, made its run to pull ahead.

Kyron Cartwright dished out seven assists without a turnover in the the first stanza as Providence relied on a balanced offensive effort, and players such as sophomore Alpha Diallo, freshman Nate Watson and junior Isaiah Jackson took advantage. Yet despite doing their best to hang around Providence’s youth inside, especially with senior Emmitt Holt still out after undergoing abdominal surgery, was exposed by the more experienced Minnesota front line.

After playing a bit lax offensively Minnesota refocused in the second half, and the end result was a quality win that will only increase in value as the season wears on.

College Hoops Contender Series: Here Are Six Final Four Sleepers

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night.

Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a great chance of winning their conference and look likely to enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

Angel Delgado, Seton Hall (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

SETON HALL

If you’re not the kind of program that is going to be landing five-star, soon-to-be lottery pick freshmen by the car-load each and every fall, the best way to win basketball games is to get old and stay old. No one quite embodies that ethos this season like Seton Hall does.

Head coach Kevin Willard entered the 2015-16 season on the hot seat after his loaded 2014 recruiting class sparked a 13-3 start to the 2014-15 season before the team fell off a cliff, losing 12 of their last 15 games and missing out on the postseason entirely. Following that season, the Pirates jettisoned some of their baggage and returned a core of sophomores that would eventually lead the program to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances despite losing Isaiah Whitehead to the 2016 NBA Draft.

And now, four members of that 2014 recruiting class — guards Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, big men Angel Delgado and Ishmael Sanogo — are now seniors leading what may be the best Seton Hall team since the P.J. Carlesimo days. Delgado’s name is the one you need to know. The 6-foot-9 Dominican power forward is one of the toughest and most physical bigs in the country. It’s not a mistake that he averaged 15.2 points and 13.1 boards last season, numbers that jumped to 16.4 points and 14.5 boards in Big East play.

He’s Seton Hall’s All-American. He was also the team’s third-leading scorer last year, behind Carrington and Rodriguez, who are both tough, physical New York City guards; Carrington is more of a combo while Rodriguez is a wing. Sanogo Michael Nzei are tough, athletic, defensive-minded front court players, and you’re starting to see the trend here, right?

Playing Seton Hall is not going to be fun this season, and while they may not be the most talented team in the country this year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that plays harder.

There are going to be two things that determine Seton Hall’s ceiling:

  • Does Seton Hall have a point guard? Freshman Jordan Walker is the only true point that will be eligible this season, and the Pirates ran into some problems that came with a lack of playmakers last season. Asking a freshman to handle those responsibilities will be tough, but it helps that Carrington can handle the ball and that everyone else on the floor will be a veteran.
  • What does Myles Powell turn into? He had some promising moments as a freshman, including 26-point outbursts at Iowa and at Xavier. If he become a more consistent shooter, that opens up a lot more space for Delgado inside.
Collin Sexton (David Banks/Getty Images)

ALABAMA

Last year, Alabama finished the season as one of the top ten defensive teams in college basketball, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

Not only do the Crimson Tide return essentially everyone from that team, they also add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to the mix. More importantly, that recruiting class features players that are able to get buckets in a hurry, and if you any Alabama basketball a year ago, you know that was a major issue; they were 153rd in adjusted offensive efficiency and, in February, played a four-overtime game against South Carolina where they managed all of 90 points in 60 minutes of basketball.

The name that you’re going to want to be familiar with is Collin Sexton, a top ten prospect in the class and the pound-for-pound best freshman scorer in the country. Assuming he’s eligible – which is no guarantee given the fact that he appears to be linked to the college basketball bribery scandal that erupted last week – it’s going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to the college level — in high school, the 6-foot-2 guard’s game was centered around getting into the lane, throwing his body into people and getting to the foul line — but he should immediately help relieve some of those scoring issues, as will five-star off-guard John Petty. Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram are both back in the mix as well, while former four-star big man Daniel Giddens will be eligible after transferring in from Ohio State.

I’m still very-much taking a wait-and-see approach with the Tide this year, but the combination of last year’s defense combined with the influx of scoring talent Avery Johnson will see in his back court this year gets the Tide a ceiling that is as high as anyone’s in the SEC this side of Kentucky and Florida.

UCLA

It’s going to be easy for people to write off this UCLA team.

Lonzo Ball is gone, as is T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford. Instead, the Bruins will enroll Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and the one that may end up igniting LaVar’s ire if he does not play the kind of minutes and get the kind of shots he envisions.

Frankly, I’m not even going to bother trying to convince you otherwise. There are major, major question marks surrounding this team.

But let’s pretend, for a second, that LaVar Ball did not exist.

The Bruins may have the best point guard in the Pac-12 in Aaron Holiday, who is one of the nation’s most underrated players. They have Thomas Welsh, a senior big man that can space the floor, and G.G. Goloman, another veteran front court presence. Prince Ali is coming off of an injury but he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. Then there is the recruiting class: Jaylen Hands might be the reason that Holiday isn’t the best point guard on UCLA this year, and wing Kris Wilkes may actually have the biggest impact as a freshman. Throw in four-star recruits Chris Smith, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, and there is talent, depth and experience up and down this lineup.

They’ve got a shot to make some noise.

J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

XAVIER

You want a sneaky sleeper pick for National Player of the Year that no one seems to be talking about?

Trevon Bluiett.

The 6-foot-6 wing was an absolute killer when he wasn’t dealing with an ankle injury last season, and through the first three rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament, he was the best player in the event. He’ll be back, potentially as a Preseason First-Team All-American, to anchor a roster that is probably more talented and athletic than you realize.

Senior wing J.P. Macura is back, as is sophomore Quentin Goodin, a former four-star recruit that has some promising moments as in an up-and-down freshman season filling in for the injured Edmond Sumner. Throw in a trio of four-star perimeter recruits, an experienced and versatile frontline and The Return of the (Chris) Mack, who was a target during Indiana’s coaching search, and there is a lot to like about this team.

But it’s Bluiett that is the centerpiece. As much as anyone in college basketball, he can put this group on his back and carry them to four straight wins in March, and with this supporting cast and coaching staff, that make Xavier a dangerous team.

MINNESOTA

The Golden Gophers were one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a season ago. Richard Pitino entered the season on the hot seat before winning 12 of their first 13 games only to lose five straight midway through Big Ten play. They would regroup, however, winning eight straight down the stretch, finishing the year with 24 wins and, somehow, turning into the obvious first round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 5 seed.

It was a roller coaster, but given the youth that was on that roster and the fact that Akeem Springs is the only contributor that won’t be returning to school, it was a nice starting point for what could turn into an extended run of Big Ten success.

Nate Mason is back for his senior year while junior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Isaiah Washington give Pitino plenty of back court options. Amir Coffey, a former five-star recruit, had a terrific freshman campaign as a versatile wing while the front court options are plentiful — Reggie Lynch and Bakary Konate return, and Davante Fitzgerald’s return to health should help mitigate the loss of Eric Curry.

All told, that means a Pitino-coached team has a talented, experienced perimeter attack with a bevy of big bodies on the front line. If Coffey can grow into an all-Big Ten talent, Minnesota will have the horses to give Michigan State a run for their money atop the league.

Matt Farrell, Bonzie Colson (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

NOTRE DAME

To me, the Fighting Irish have reached the point in their program development that they are to the ACC what Wisconsin was to the Big Ten under Bo Ryan. Instead of trying to figure out who is going to play what role, just assume that the pieces Mike Brey has matriculating through his program will find a way to figure it out.

There is no better example of this than last year, when the Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste from a team that went 24-12 and somehow managed to win more games with a better ACC record despite using 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson as their small-ball center for much of the year.

And never has there been a player more perfectly-suited to a role than Colson is to playing in Mike Brey’s system. He’s borderline unstoppable one-on-one, and when the Irish plant knockdown shooters everywhere around him, they become a nightmare to defend.

Matt Farrell, who was one of the most pleasant surprises in college basketball last season, will return as well, but the key for this group is going to be three-fold:

  1. Will Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, two wings that entered Notre Dame with expectations and a high rankings by recruiting services, take advantage of the minutes made available by the graduation of Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem?
  2. Will D.J. Harvey, a talented forward that was once a top ten player in the Class of 2017, have an immediate impact as the big wing that the Irish currently lack?
  3. Does Martinas Geben become a player that can anchor a front line when needed?

If all three of those things happen, Notre Dame will once again be a top 20 team that can beat anyone on any given night.

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.