Future of Gophers men’s basketball at forefront in final few games of season

With their NCAA tournament hopes all but shot, so much of what the Gophers men’s basketball team does to finish the regular season and Big Ten tournament will be looked at in a future ...

Minnesota Gophers center Daniel Oturu (25) looks to pass as Wisconsin Badgers guard Brad Davison (34) defends during their March 1 game at the Kohl Center in Madison. Mary Langenfeld / USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS -- With their NCAA tournament hopes all but shot, so much of what the Gophers men’s basketball team does to finish the regular season and Big Ten tournament will be looked at in a future context.

Do the players continue to play hard as losses stack up?

Are young players showing development gains?

Where does center Daniel Oturu’s view of the NBA stand?

With coach Richard Pitino’s future in question, how’s he handling the tough stretch?


The next set of answers will come when Minnesota (13-15, 7-11 Big Ten) faces Indiana (18-11, 8-10) at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind.

After a handful of devastating defeats in late February, the Gophers’ 71-69 loss to Wisconsin on Sunday showed players remain bought in. Minnesota rallied from a 12-point deficit and led in the final minute before falling to the streaking Badgers at Kohl Center.

The biggest player development gain has come from true freshman forward Isaiah Ihnen. The four-star recruit from Germany set career highs with nine points against Maryland on Feb. 26 and 10 rebounds against Wisconsin.

"He was playing really well," Pitino said of Ihnen against the Badgers.

But a learning moment came at a really bad time when Ihnen lost track of his man and gave up a crucial lay-up late in the game.

 "That’s the hard part when you put a freshman in that situation," Pitino said. "Obviously he made a mistake at the end, but you are going to live with it when the effort is great."

But collectively, the effort hasn’t always been there, including in the 68-56 loss to the Hoosiers at Williams Arena on Feb. 19.

"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder about that game," guard Payton Willis said Tuesday. "We didn’t play as hard as we could and effort was a problem that game. They came here and dominated us."


What area was lacking? Defensive? End of the game?

"I think it was a little bit of everything," Willis answered. "I’m not exactly sure what it was."

Guard Gabe Kalscheur said Pitino has remained positive with the team. "He’s done a pretty good job with how he is talking to us and keeping our spirits up," Kalscheur said. "Being positive with us, and that helps a lot with our team."

After Oturu’s name was listed on a minority of draft boards this winter, he and Pitino talked about the sophomore center’s prospects of turning pro early. They haven’t revisited the subject since then.

"There is no point," Pitino said Tuesday. "He doesn’t have to make a decision right now. He wants to help this team win. I’ve told him when the time is right, I want to be a part of that decision for you to help you. But if you have a great opportunity, I told him, ‘I will push you right out the door.’ When you recruit a kid and you help develop him and so on, you want to see what’s best for him."

One matchup that will be watched by NBA scouts on Wednesday will be Oturu vs. Hoosiers freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis. Jackson-Davis got the upper hand in their first meeting with career highs of 27 points and 16 rebounds along with two blocks, while Oturu had 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting, 14 rebounds and three blocks.


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