Pitino, Gophers talk Italy trip at State Fair

Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino sent out a text to solidify his group of players for Monday’s appearance at the Minnesota State Fair.

Gabe Kalscheur, Jarvis Omersa and Payton Willis. Two Minnesota natives, and Willis, who went in with no idea what the State Fair was about. Pitino forgot to include one other: Daniel Oturu.

“It’s funny, I had Gabe, Payton and Jarvis set for it and I get a text from Daniel Oturu, ‘Why am I not on the list?’ I kind of thought they didn’t want to be on the list, it’s one less thing for them to do,” Pitino said. “But they love coming out here, this is my seventh one, which is exciting to be a part of it.”

Between the pronto pups and mini donuts, the group made their way around the State Fairgrounds and met with fans at the University of Minnesota’s building. Fair-goers could shop for Gopher gear, see the Quick Lane Bowl trophy or test their wing span against a poster of Oturu, who stretches out to 7-3.

They also survived a steady rain in the afternoon that had people there putting on ponchos or giving their umbrellas a workout. Omersa was impressed by the turnout despite the rain.

“It just shows them, especially the new guys, the commitment that this state as a whole has to things. We take pride in the State Fair, we take pride in our basketball team, our football team and all that,” he said.

Pitino will soon embark on his seventh season with the Gophers, and is coming off his second NCAA Tournament appearance with Minnesota. The Gophers beat Louisville in the opening round at the Des Moines regional before losing to Michigan State.

The team held 10 off-season practices before taking a foreign tour to Italy. The do it once every four years, playing three games and touring various cities. There was plenty of food, and lots of culture.

“It was crazy. Like coach said, it was a one-time experience in your life that you can do it. It was remarkable,” Kalscheur said.

He said his favorite parts were touring the Vatican and connecting with his Catholic roots, going back to his days at DeLaSalle. Seeing the Coliseum was “really cool,” and they basked in the beauty of mountains and water at Lake Como.

The Gophers played some basketball, too. They won three games, and Pitino considered Willis his MVP for the trip. Over three games, he had 16 assists and just two turnovers. Freshman Tre Williams was one of Minnesota’s top scorers on the trip, with 19 points in the second game and 22 points in the finale.

The Gophers have a lot of new faces this year. Gone are Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer from the starting lineup. Willis and Marcus Carr are eligible after transfer years, and incoming freshman include Williams, Isaiah Ihnen, Sam Freeman and Bryan Greenlee. Pitino also added Drexel graduate transfer Alihan Demir in the offseason.

The Gophers have more shooters, and they should be a better offensive team this season.

“Just seeing how raw our team is. We have all this talent, really good shooters in good spots. When we wrap that all up, put it together and like get in sync, just seeing how the team will skyrocket from there,” Omersa said.

Omersa went as far as to say if the Gophers had Willis and Carr eligible last season, they "could've been a Final 4 team."

Pitino said it will take time for this year’s quad to come together, but they’ll be fun to coach. He also said he expects Eric Curry, who has spent two seasons battling knee and foot injuries, to be fully cleared by mid-September. Curry practiced with the team during the summer, but did not play in Italy.