By Chris Emma-
(CBS) EVANSTON, Ill. – Leaving the locker room after a hard-fought victory Sunday, Minnesota’s DeAndre Mathieu had blood dripping down from his lip.
This marked the second game in a row in which Mathieu sliced open his lip in a game. A Wisconsin player delivered an elbow to the grill in Thursday’s game. So how did this one happen?
“I don’t even know,” Mathieu said with a quick laugh before covering up the wound.
This is part of life in the Big Ten, something the junior college transfer is learning the painful way during his first season with the Golden Gophers. For Minnesota to leave Welsh-Ryan Arena with a 54-48 win over Northwestern, it took a physical, black-and-blue effort to mimic the Wildcats’ style.
First-year Gophers coach Richard Pitino had his team ready to attack.
“Obviously a great, great defensive performance,” Pitino said after the victory.
“I’m really proud of the win. That’s a tough, hard-fought victory. To do it on the road, I’m really proud of them.”
The Gopher players have embraced what their new leader has brought to the Twin Cities — namely preparation and work ethic. Minnesota is always ready to combat its opponent, easier said than done in this Big Ten.
“He’s so smart,” Mathieu said. “I’ve never seen a coach that smart. He can draw up a play in the huddle, perfect, right then and there, off the top of his head.”
Pitino has been around success in the game of college basketball, working with his father, Rick Pitino, and Florida’s Billy Donovan. He has witnessed the work it takes to have a team prepared to compete at a championship level.
In his first year as a Big Ten coach and second overall as a college head coach, Pitino is having success. It all starts with the scouting report.
“Our coaches do a really, really good job of scouting and keeping us alert, making sure we know everything that’s going on, and then we try to do it the best that we can,” Mathieu said. “It’s really all our coaches, they do a good job.”
Perhaps Pitino’s greatest influence is shown in the cool and calm demeanor of his players — something reflected even in year one. Minnesota has displayed it all season, from a near-upset of top-ranked Syracuse to upsets of Ohio State and Wisconsin to heartbreaking losses to Purdue and Northwestern.
Through a season of highs and lows, Minnesota sits at 17-9 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten, good for seventh place and a game back of fifth. Its tournament hopes are looking stronger after an important road win in Evanston, but that wasn’t the emphasis from Pitino in his pregame speech.
“Today is an opportunity for us to get better,” Pitino said in his pregame remarks to the players. “We’ve been provided a game that we all love, in a great conference and great environment.
Let’s go enjoy it.”
The Gophers’ postseason resume is largely incomplete after weathering through a lackluster non-conference schedule. Minnesota has two winnable games remaining — home games with Illinois and Penn State — but three difficult tests against Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan sandwiched in between.
To reach the tournament in Pitino’s first season, it will take an upset or two in final weeks. The Gophers will be on the bubble until Selection Sunday. But that’s not their focus.
“The coaches tell us to keep playing hard, keep doing things the right way,” Mathieu said. “Play to the Minnesota standards, and we’ll win games.”
Added Pitino: “We really don’t talk about it at all. Never, ever talk about it.”
The focus is on the next game, nothing beyond that. That’s how Pitino prepares and his players play. It has led to success in year one.
That’s the impact of the Gophers’ new coach.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBS Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @CEmmaScout.