Pitino, Oturu 'focused on Nebraska' as futures with Gophers remain uncertain

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))

The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team hosts Nebraska in its regular season finale on Sunday at Williams Arena.

We know it will be the final home game for seniors Michael Hurt, Brady Rudrud and Alihan Demir. But could it also be the final time at Williams Arena for center Daniel Oturu and coach Richard Pitino? Their situations are far different, and we won’t know the futures of either until after the season.

That could happen as early as next week, with the Gophers (13-16) already locked into the No. 12 seed and playing next Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota’s only guarantee to hear their name on Selection Sunday is by winning the league tournament, winning five games over five days. If the Gophers suffer an early exit in Indianapolis, they may not even get a bid to the NIT.

Now finishing his seventh season, it’s led to questions about Pitino’s future in Minnesota. On his radio show earlier this week, he said “I don’t think it’s reality,” when asked if he was coaching for his job the rest of the season.

He addressed his future again on Friday when asked by reporters.

“Here’s what I look at, I look at that we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament two out of the last three years. Very proud of that. We lost a lot of pieces, probably the most in our conference,” Pitino said. “I don’t concern myself, the only time I ever think about it is when you guys ask me questions about it. I’m not mad at that, it’s your job. Other than that, we’re business as usual here. We’ve got a young team, played a tough schedule. Guys are giving me their all, so that’s really it. When you get a two-year extension before the season, you don’t think like that. But, part of the profession and I understand it and I respect that.”

So, in other words, Pitino expects to return for his eighth season in Minnesota despite a 42-87 career mark in the Big Ten, and a 2-10 record in true road games this year. The Gophers have lost eight Big Ten games this season by eight points or fewer.

This season could be the fourth in Pitino’s tenure where the Gophers don’t make either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.

As for Oturu? He’s the only player in college basketball averaging at least 20 points and 11 rebounds per game. He leads the Gophers in scoring and rebounding, and is second in the Big Ten in scoring behind Luka Garza. If not for Garza, Oturu would be the favorite to win the Big Ten Player of the Year Award.

Oturu could leave the Gophers after the season and declare for the NBA Draft. He’s focused on the now, and beating Nebraska on Sunday.

“We’ve got Nebraska on Sunday, we got the Big Ten Tournament and hopefully we have more than that afterwards. That’s just pretty much what my focus has been on,” Oturu said Friday. “Whatever the future holds is what the future holds, but I am a person that is focused on now.”

Mock drafts have Oturu anywhere from a lottery pick to being taken lower in the first round. Some don’t have him being drafted at all. After being asked multiple times about his future Friday, Oturu said he’ll wait for that when the time comes.

“I really don’t think about it much because I love being here, I love Minnesota. I love playing for Maroon and Gold, so just continuing to always come to practice and work and fight for the name across my jersey is what is important to me,” Oturu said. “Regardless of what the future holds, as long as we continue to fight and finish the season strong is the most important thing. That’s the current focus of our team.”

The guy who might be most interested to know Oturu’s decision is Pitino. If they’re both back, the Gophers have potential to be a special team next year.

“We’ll talk to Daniel about that. I know he loves playing here, I know he loves playing in the Big Ten. I know he loves playing for this program, loves playing with his teammates, but that’s the modern day world that we’re living in college sports,” Pitino said.