Column: Mental game shook Gophers basketball this season

by David Nelson

Richard Pitino strolled into his postgame press conference in a surprisingly gregarious manner after his team lost by 13 points to Wisconsin in early March.

The second-year head coach answered every question in his typical straightforward manner, including one asking whether the team’s seniors were concerned about their legacy at the end of a rather underachieving season.

“I don’t think they think like that,” Pitino said. “I think they’re college seniors. I don’t think they’re thinking legacies.”

Perhaps, therein lay the problem for the Gophers men’s basketball team this season — it lacked the mentality to be successful.

When the team began losing on a consistent basis, the dialogue around Minnesota seemed to switch from determination to simply sending the seniors out on a high note.

It wasn’t to win the Big Ten, win a few games in the conference tournament or go to the NCAA tournament, but to send the seniors out well.

You know a team lacks confidence in itself when it can’t even decide what it wants its future to look like — or at least doesn’t disclose it openly.

The conversation about player’s futures came up in the beginning of the season when Pitino asked players in practice about whether they considered themselves capable of playing in the NBA.

Pitino said only junior Carlos Morris thought he was.

“We need guys to start getting a little bit more confidence, a little bit more of an edge to them and believing that,” Pitino said.

The players never seemed to get there, and it translated into regressed play this season.

Not one player made it onto an All-Big Ten team — not the first team, second team or even the third team.

Pitino’s father, Rick Pitino, talked last weekend about his son’s year at Minnesota.

The Louisville head coach relayed a conversation he had with Richard after the season.

“[I tried to] build him up a little bit, but to get him to understand that it really is — you’re only as good as your players,” Rick Pitino told The Courier-Journal. “If you don’t have a first, second or third team All-Big Ten, you’re probably not going to compete … Once you get better players, you win those games.”

Nate Mason looked like one of those players during the season.

Mason looked fearless against Wisconsin, one of the top-five teams in the country, as he dropped 15 points.

That mentality should pay dividends for both Mason and Minnesota in the future.

But as a unit, the Gophers never showed that persona this year, ultimately costing the team its season.