'I'm just really focused on trying to win': Gophers' Oturu named to Wooden Award Watch List

Gophers sophomore Daniel Oturu celebrates near the end of Minnesota's 75-69 win over Penn State Wednesday night at Williams Arena. Oturu finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

When the University of Minnesota men’s basketball season started, the Gophers weren’t getting much national attention.

They were predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten, and there wasn’t a player that stood out on the national stage. The Gophers are still working towards building an NCAA Tournament resume with nine games to play, plus the Big Ten Tournament, but sophomore center Daniel Oturu is starting to garner national attention.

The Gophers’ leading scorer and top rebounder was named this week to the John R. Wooden Award Late Season watch list. The award will go at the end of the season to the top player in college basketball.

“It was a pretty cool honor, but it’s still the middle of the season. I’m just really focused on trying to win,” Oturu said Tuesday as the Gophers (11-10, 5-6) get ready to host Wisconsin Wednesday night at Williams Arena.

Oturu’s numbers speak for themselves. His 19.7 points per game ranks second in the Big Ten behind Iowa’s Luka Garza, and 33rd nationally. He’s leading the conference with 11.7 rebounds per game, which is also seventh nationally.

Oturu is also shooting 58.5 percent from the field to lead the Big Ten, and his 2.6 blocked shots per game is second. In just his sophomore year, he’s dominating a league known for its physicality.

“I think it’s pretty cool. That’s quite an accomplishment. I think that what he’s done is he’s just taken the next step,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought he had a good freshman year, he’s having a terrific sophomore year. But I know what he wants more than anything, over any award, is getting back in the NCAA Tournament.”

Oturu also isn’t the lone Minnesotan on the list. He’s joined by Duke sophomore and Apple Valley native Tre Jones.

Oturu has scored in double figures in all but one game, and has started all 21 games this season. He’s scored at least 20 points in 11 of their 20 games this season, and has 11 double-doubles, which ranks third in the Big Ten and 17th nationally.

In a season where the Gophers have had their shooting struggles, the Woodbury native and Cretin-Derham Hall graduate has been the most consistent player for Minnesota. He attributes that to playing last year alongside Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey, who are each now chasing their NBA Dreams. Murphy is in the G-League with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Coffey is with the L.A. Clippers.

There wasn’t a much better mentor for Oturu than Murphy, who left the Gophers as the top rebounder in Big Ten history, and top five in career scoring at Minnesota. NBA scouts are taking notice, as more show up to every Gophers game to watch Oturu.

“I feel like I kind of took a lot, especially being able to play against an All-Big Ten player every day in practice with Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey. Being able to practice with them every day and playing against other really good talent across the league last year, I feel like it helped me,” Oturu said.

He’s not afraid to be confident in his game. He’s a vocal leader in the court, encourages his teammates and will even flex when he scores in a big moment, or makes a big play over a defender.

He’s also careful to not overdo the celebrating.

"He's emotional in a good way. I think that Daniel, he's got a youthful exuberance about him. He wants to dunk and then he wants to yell into the student section. He wants to flex when he makes a wide-open layup. He wants to do those things, and good for him, but that's part of playing college basketball, doing it the right way,” Pitino said.

While he’s putting up the big numbers, Oturu is also third in the Big Ten with 34 minutes per game.

The Wooden Award ballot will be cut down to 15 finalists, and an All-America Team will be announced during the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The winner will be announced on Friday, April 10, during the College Basketball Awards Show.

Those who haven’t seen Oturu play in person will want to get to Williams Arena soon. The Gophers only have five home games left, including Wednesday night against Wisconsin. There’s no guarantee he’ll be back for his junior year, as most projections have Oturu as a first-round pick in the next NBA Draft.

He’s going to have a future in professional basketball, it’s just a matter of when. Oturu has been careful to say he’ll worry about his future after his second year with the Gophers is over.