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‘Chemistry Lesson’ Pays off Big for U

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March 3, 2017

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There are multiple ways to explain the dramatic turnaround in the Gophers basketball program. Talented newcomers, and skilled and improved returnees. Better leadership from the coaches and players. Even a lucky bounce of the ball, or a fortunate call from a referee help explain how the Gophers have gone from a 2-16 Big Ten record last year to 11-6 going into Sunday’s regular season finale at Wisconsin.

But take all of the above and it leads back to the offseason when Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, his assistants and players collectively decided things had to change. Not only was the team’s overall record of 8-23 unacceptable, but there were off-court issues too. Call it culture, chemistry or whatever, but change was needed.

Pitino arranged for a lengthy list of speakers to talk with players about non-basketball subjects including sex education, how to handle the pressures of being student-athletes, and job skills to make them hirable after college. Players were also involved with community service work. Pitino said his guys wanted to change the image of Gophers basketball and become a better program on and off the court.

Former Gophers head coach Jim Dutcher acknowledged the results while talking with Sports Headliners. “The Gopher basketball (program) was featured on the front page and not the sports page. They changed that now. It’s a much closer unit. You can tell they’re having more fun playing the game.”

Spencer Tollackson, a former Gopher and now the radio analyst on games, praised the changes he has seen. “I think the team has matured a lot on and off the court,” he told Sports Headliners. “Coach has talked about some of the incidents that happened last year. They owned up to them and learned from them.”

Richard Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Pitino looked back after last night’s win over Nebraska and reflected on the situation following the 2015-2016 season. “There’s a lot of players who would (have chosen to) transfer. Nate didn’t. Murph didn’t. Dupree didn’t. Bakary. All those guys believed that we were going to be better. They all took ownership.

“People (on the outside) were running for the hills with us, and I don’t blame them. But everybody sat there and we all said, listen this is on us to fix, and we’re not going to sit back and say everything is fine. We took ownership of our program and our guys deserve a lot of credit for that.”

Junior guard Nate Mason is the team’s leading scorer and seems headed toward All-Big Ten recognition. Sophomore forward Jordan Murphy has produced double-doubles in points and rebounds in six of the last seven games. Sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer willingly accepted a change from starter to valuable reserve off the bench. Junior center Bakary Konate has been another contributor off the bench. Those players have been joined by three starting newcomers this season. Junior transfer center Reggie Lynch leads the Big Ten in blocks, senior transfer guard Akeem Springs is a three point specialist and locker room leader, and freshman forward Amir Coffey excels in all kinds of ways offensively and defensively.

“They really like playing with each other,” Pitino said. “They’re committed to getting better. I keep telling them that I’ve been lucky to be around some pretty good March runs in my life—and it just ends. It all goes away, so just enjoy the journey. They’ve been really good about this. I think their mentality, more than anything, has really, really been a positive.”

The Gophers have won eight consecutive games and are a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Their winning record in Big Ten games is a first since 2005. The program has ramped up its image and won a lot of fans back.

What a difference a year makes.

Worth Noting

Early fan and media speculation has the Twins’ win total somewhere in the 70s after reaching just 59 last season. One fan placed a Las Vegas 150/1 wager on the Twins winning the World Series. He doesn’t believe it will happen but likes the odds.

The Twins’ regular season opener is April 3 against the Royals in Minneapolis and AccuWeather.com forecasts a daytime high of 54 degrees with morning flurries and “then a shower.” The game will be one of 150 televised by Fox Sports North during the regular season. Dick Bremer will be in his 34th season providing play-by-play, with various former Twins providing game analysis including Bert Blyleven and newcomers Torii Hunter (debuts April 16) and LaTroy Hawkins (May 21).

Max Kepler (photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins).

This could be the Twins’ opening day lineup: pitcher Ervin Santana; catcher Jason Castro; first base Joe Mauer; second base Brian Dozier; shortstop Jorge Polanco; third base Miguel Sano; outfielders Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario; DH ByungHo Park.

A year from now changes might include Jose Berrios as the starting pitcher, Nick Gordon moving in at shortstop with Polanco going to third base and Sano replacing Mauer at first. Mitch Garver could be a possibility to become the regular catcher.

Craig Curry, the former Gophers quarterback who rushed and passed for over 2,000 yards in 1971, was the subject of a February 23 Miami Herald front page story as part of Black History month coverage by the newspaper. In the 1960s the country, including south Florida, was wrestling with desegregation. Curry transferred from an all-black high school to all-white Coral Gables High where he became the quarterback of a state and national championship team, according to the Herald. In the story a teammate referred to Curry as “our Jackie Robinson.” Blacks often weren’t given opportunities to play quarterback on any level of football in the 1960s, but the Gophers had a reputation for fairness under coach Murray Warmath.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has been added to the roster of speakers for the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Clinic March 30-April 1. Cutcliffe replaces Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, and joins such prominent names as Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman and San Diego State’s Jeff Horton. More information is available by clicking on the MFCA advertisement on this page and visiting the organization’s website.

The MFCA holds its Hall of Fame Banquet the night of April 1 at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park. High School Division inductees are Brad Anderson, Wayzata; Richard Risbrudt, Hillcrest Lutheran; Mike Scanlan, Cretin-Derham Hall; Curtis Strand, McLeod West; and Rick Sutton, Eagan. Larry Knutson, from KQWB Radio in Breckenridge, will be inducted in the Citation Division.

Coach Tom Thibodeau, who for years has been highly publicized for his defensive instruction, is apparently making an impression on the Timberwolves in his first season as head coach. The Wolves have held opponents under 90 points in four of the last seven games. Minnesota is 9-0 when limiting the opposition to under 90 points.

Third-year Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins has scored 20 or more points in a club record 19 consecutive games. Second-year center Karl-Anthony Towns has done that in 16 straight games.

The Wolves, with a 25-36 record, are in contention to earn their way into the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They play at San Antonio tomorrow night against a Spurs team with a 46-13 record, the second best in the NBA.

Jim Robinson, the new chair of the Mr. Basketball Committee from St. Paul, has been with the group for about 10 years. He is a former Big Ten Conference basketball referee and is an evaluator of Minnesota high school basketball officials. The announcement of the 2017 Mr. Basketball winner will be made after the boys’ state tournament.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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