Unbeaten Minnesota Gophers embrace Lindsay Whalen's way

Brad Rempel photo

MINNEAPOLIS -- Destiny Pitts and the rest of the Minnesota Gophers are taking a pragmatic approach. Their new coach's mindset is rubbing off on them in a lot of ways.

Sure, the Gophers are ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and are 10-0. But they understand if people might have some questions.

"They're wondering how good we are, because our schedule probably hasn't been the best," Pitts said. "But I think we showed when we played a team like Syracuse, we were able to come out and win that. People are probably going to question it when we get in the Big Ten: Are they really that good? But I think we're going to hold our ground."

Certainly, Minnesota couldn't have asked for a better start to the coach Lindsay Whalen era. The Gophers beat Coppin State 84-52 on Dec. 12, and they have time off for finals before they finish their nonconference schedule against Rhode Island on Saturday.

Then on Dec. 28, Big Ten play starts for the Gophers at Williams Arena. And one can assume the old Barn will be rocking during conference games especially, as the rivalries that Whalen participated in as a Minnesota player will be revisited by her as coach.

Whalen has been most pleased with how her players are listening and responding. The WNBA legend, who won four league titles with the Minnesota Lynx, was accepted immediately by the Gophers players, of course. But that didn't necessarily mean she could count on how quickly they would implement what she wanted.

"I think that's been a big strength of our team: Every time we've had something that we identified we wanted to work on, we've done that," Whalen said. "We've worked on it in practice, and it's carried over into the games, which I feel like is a sign of a really good team."

The Gophers are No. 32 in the NCAA's RPI, with a strength of schedule at 217. Whalen, who took over in April, inherited that schedule and is likely to improve it in future seasons. But the Gophers do have one very good victory: a 72-68 over then-No. 12 Syracuse on Nov. 29.

During that game, the Gophers fell behind 61-55 with 3 minutes, 36 seconds left. Whalen called a timeout and calmly talked to her team about what was going wrong. They responded with a 12-0 run started by Pitts' 3-pointer, and got the victory.

Coppin State coach DeWayne Burroughs, who has seen his squad go against West Virginia, Maryland and Mississippi State this season, said the Gophers compared favorably to those teams.

"They take care of the basketball and they knock down shots," Burroughs said. "They run their stuff, and they play great defense. They get in the passing lanes and do a great job rebounding the basketball."

The Gophers also played well in the game before that, a 77-69 victory at Boston College in which Pitts had a career-high 35 points. She made six of eight 3-point shots against Boston College, and then four of four from long range against Coppin State.

"I feel pretty good with it right now," Pitts said of her 3-point shot. "I think as a team, we've found our rhythm. And we're able to create off our defense."

Leading the way scoring-wise for the Gophers at 18.6 points per game is senior guard Kenisha Bell, one of the top players in the Big Ten. Pitts, who was the Big Ten's freshman of the year last season, is at 13.8 PPG. Junior forward Taiye Bello is Minnesota's top rebounder at 13.2 per game. Gadiva Hubbard, a junior guard who started last season and averaged 13.6 points with 110 total assists, is out indefinitely after foot surgery in October, but Whalen is hopeful of getting her back during Big Ten play.

Pitts is from Detroit, so she was a Big Ten fan before coming to Minnesota. She liked Michigan State in hoops growing up, but she's picked up a lot about Gophers' history since being in Minneapolis.

"Once we found out it was Coach Whalen taking over, it was kind of like a dream come true for our team," Pitts said. "You can just tell how much she's meant to the state of Minnesota. That amps us up a little bit more. It's not like she's putting pressure on us, but we just know how much it means to represent Minnesota and the players that came before us."

The 5-foot-10 Pitts is more comfortable at the small forward spot this season. She grins when saying that Whalen knows plenty about what can make a player successful at that position, since in her WNBA point guard role, Whalen played with Maya Moore.

"She was able to sit me down and watch some of the things the Lynx did, and how that translated to our offense," Pitts said. "How to read my screens and change speeds. She's been able to help me start to take my game to the next level. Just being able to read the defense better. I think this offense is allowing me to show my overall game, and I've been more effective in it."

The tougher tests are on the way for the Gophers, but Whalen is happy with where they are right now so early in her tenure.

"That starts with these two right here," Whalen said, pointing toward Bell and Pitts. "They were on the court a lot last year. And then coming into a new system, and their willingness to understand how we want to play and how we feel like we can be successful.

"They have a chance to do some really cool things just because of the way that they've approached those things."