MINNEAPOLIS — Luring prized recruit and social media sensation Isaiah Washington from New York to Minnesota was bound to elevate the profile of the Gophers’ basketball team.
With five returning starters from last season’s surprise NCAA Tournament team, expectations were already going to be raised in Minnesota. Washington’s arrival to the university, where he said he wants to “start my own legacy,” has only driven the outlook higher.
The Gophers, who improved by 16 wins last year to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in coach Richard Pitino’s four seasons, are two weeks away from opening a season with the spotlight unlike any they have endured since reaching the Final Four in 1997.
Minnesota starts the season ranked No. 15 in the first USA Today coaches poll, the second-highest ranked team in the Big Ten behind Michigan State, a stark departure from the team that suffered through a program-worst 8-23 in 2015-16.
“We were picked 13th last year and we showed that all that talk is irrelevant,” Pitino said Saturday of the conference’s preseason poll as the team held its annual media day. “Well, it’s the same thing this year. Some got us picked towards the top, none of it really matters. At the end of the day, if we let our play do the talking, then none of it will really matter.”
Pitino’s challenge as coach has changed. He said it was easy to get the team to bond last year with everyone downplaying the Gophers. This season, another NCAA appearance is practically expected. Minnesota has only made back-to-back tournament appearances once in the past 22 seasons.
Senior guard Nate Mason and sophomore swingman Amir Coffey were named to the preseason All-Big Ten team at last week’s conference media day. Mason is on the watch list for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the best point guard in the country, and junior forward Jordan Murphy is on the Karl Malone Award watch list for the nation’s top power forward.
Senior center Reggie Lynch is the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year. Mason, Coffey, Murphy and junior guard Dupree McBrayer all scored in double figures last season.
“Potential is big,” Mason said Saturday. “We’ve got all the talent. We’ve got all the pieces. It’s just a matter of working hard and staying focused. We got to play both ends and we got to really lock down the consistency.”
And then there is Washington.
The Gophers have, possibly, never attracted a recruit with the status and hype surrounding Washington, the Mr. New York Basketball as a senior last season at St. Raymond’s H.S. in the Bronx. Washington, of “jelly fam” fame, has nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram and another 35,000 on Twitter.
“I don’t really pay no mind to the people that got expectations for me,” Washington said. “As long as I just go on the floor, play my heart out and we win the games, I’ll look good and the team will look good.”
Mason, McBrayer, Lynch and Davonte Fitzgerald were dealing with injuries as practice started, but Pitino said everyone has been cleared. The lone exception is sophomore center Eric Curry, who will miss the season with a knee injury.