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'You were my hero.' U center Oturu brought to tears over Bryant's death

Gophers coach Richard Pitino found out about the unexpected death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday afternoon before his team played against Michigan State, but he told his players afterward.

Sophomore center Daniel Oturu, who made it known to teammates and coaches he idolized Bryant, seemed hardest hit by the news, Pitino said. 

 

The former Los Angeles Lakers star tragically died in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others earlier Sunday. Oturu cried hearing about it following Sunday’s 70-52 loss to the Spartans at Williams Arena.

“Daniel Oturu is a humongous Kobe Bryant fan,” Pitino said. “He was devastated after the game. I mean, in tears. He was rocked by it.”

On Sunday night, Oturu posted on his Instagram account a selfie he took as a high school standout with Bryant at a Nike Camp in 2017. The Gophers 6-foot-10 star wrote on social media about what Bryant meant to him, which echoed so many other fans, athletes and basketball players locally and around the world.

“You were more than just my favorite player,” Oturu wrote. “You were my hero. My heart is so broken. Rest in Peace Kobe. I’ll never forget what you meant to me.”

Bryant’s greatness inspired Oturu to always work on improving his game.

Related: Oturu meets Kobe at Nike Camp

After starting on the U's NCAA tournament team as a freshman in 2018-19, Oturu’s hard work in the offseason turned him into one of the top big men in college basketball this year. He’s averaging a team-best 19.7 points and Big Ten-leading 11.3 rebounds for the Gophers through 19 games.

On a wall facing Oturu’s bed in his childhood home in Woodbury still hangs a poster of Bryant. Hanging in front of that picture are medals Oturu received in high school, including when his game-winning dunk led Cretin-Derham Hall to the Minnesota Class 4A state championship his senior year in 2018.

The same NBA superstar featured in posters in Oturu's bedroom gave him and other campers advice about the game of basketball and life a few years ago at Bryant's Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles.

“That was pretty cool,” Oturu told the Star Tribune after the camp in August 2017. “The highlight was meeting Kobe. Definitely him. We all spent more time with Kobe than LeBron and [Kevin Durant]. He talked to us about how to build your brand, staying focused on your goals. He gave us many examples that were really cool. First time I met him. He’s a serious person about what he wants to do. I don’t really meet a lot of people who are as serious as him. He’s very dynamic. He’s very serious about what we wants to do, even if it’s not basketball related. You can tell that he’s a competitive person. I’ve always been a Kobe fan. I think Kobe is the greatest player of all-time.”

For a younger generation of NBA fans, Bryant represented the GOAT or Greatest of All-Time in the era when they started to fall in love with basketball. But Oturu also didn’t have any problem telling anyone that would listen that Bryant was even better than Michael Jordan.

Oturu even told Bryant in person at the Nike Camp about giving him the nod over MJ in the GOAT discussion.

“Yeah I told him,” Oturu said before his freshman year with the Gophers. “He just said, ‘Thank you.’”

Pregame: Containing Winston is top priority for Gophers

Gophers men’s hoops vs. No. 11 Michigan State

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

CONTAINING CASSIUS – The last time Cassius Winston had a Cassius Winston-type game was a few weeks ago when Michigan State beat the Gophers, 74-58 on Jan. 9 in East Lansing. Just when Richard Pitino thought his team had done a great job containing the reigning Big Ten player of the Year, Winston went from opening the game 1-for-6 shooting to scoring 18 of his game-high 27 points in the second half. In fact, Winston was having the best stretch of basketball of the season. He averaged 24.4 points during a five-game stretch, which included a 32-point performance in a win over rival Michigan on Jan. 5. Since the last meeting with the Gophers, though, the 6-foot-1 senior point guard has been experiencing a slump. He’s averaging just 11 points and committed a combined 17 turnovers in the last three games, including road losses at Purdue and Indiana. The worst game of the season for Winston came with 10 points and a career-worst nine turnovers in a 71-42 loss Jan. 12 at Purdue. Winston might feel more at home in Minneapolis since fans swarmed him for his autograph at the Timberwolves game Friday against the Houston Rockets at the Target Center. He also dominated his first matchup with Gophers’ point guard Marcus Carr, who was held to just 11 points and sat on the bench with four fouls early in the second half.

BATTLE ON THE BOARDS – The Gophers were crushed in the rebounding battle the last time they faced the Spartans being outrebounded 48-30 in the loss at the Breslin Center, which included giving up 18 offensive rebounds. Michigan State junior Xavier Tillman was at the forefront of that dominating effort on the glass with 19 points and seven of his 16 rebounds on offense. Richard Pitino knows his team isn’t the deepest in the frontcourt when it comes to rebounding, especially with the loss of the school’s all-time rebounding leader Jordan Murphy. Sophomore star Daniel Oturu leads the Big Ten with 11.6 rebounds per game. But the Gophers are at their best when they get help from the guards crashing the glass. They rank sixth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin at plus-2.3, but Carr is the best rebounding point guard in the conference as well. Carr and guard Payton Willis combined for 13 rebounds in Thursday’s win at Ohio State. The Gophers were minus-10 in rebounding in the first half, but they won the battle of the boards 19-15 in the second half. Pitino emphasized being physical and attacking the glass in practices since the loss last week at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights grabbed 20 offensive rebounds. 

BENCH SUPPORT – The Gophers were right there competing with the Spartans for most of the last meeting until Carr got into foul trouble. The game completed turned once Pitino’s floor leader was sidelined. Willis missed three games with an ankle injury, but he returned to play for the first time in a Big Ten road game. He struggled a bit as Carr’s backup point guard. Willis is now back in the starting lineup, but the Gophers will likely need a lift off the bench again Sunday. Will it be freshman Tre’ Williams, who replaced Willis as a starting guard for a few games? Will it be freshman forward Isaiah Ihnen, who played for the first time in four games Thursday at Ohio State? Tillman is one of the most physical post players in the Big Ten. So, Oturu and senior Alihan Demir might need help defending the Spartans’ frontcourt star from sophomore Jarvis Omersa off the bench. In three road games this season, the Gophers’ bench has been outscored 61-10.   

GAME INFO

Time: 2 p.m. CT, Sunday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota 3.0-point underdog. Series: Michigan State leads the series 63-57, including the last meeting 74-58 on Jan. 9 in East Lansing, Mich. TV: FOX. Online/Live video: FOX. Radio: 100.3

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (11-8, 5-4)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 16.3

G – Payton Willis 6-5 200 Jr. 9.4

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 11.8

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.7

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 245 So. 19.7

Key reserves– Tre’ Williams, G, 6-5, Fr., 3.5 ppg; Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 2.4 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 1.8 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, Fr., 1.8 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 141-114 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Former Gophers All-American Willie Burton will have his jersey raised up into the Barn rafters at halftime during Sunday’s game against the Spartans. Burton had a storied career from 1986-90, while leading the team in scoring with 18.6 points per game as a junior and 19.3 points as a senior. He helped former coach Clem Haskins’ teams reach the 1989 Sweet 16 and 1990 Elite Eight. Burton finished second on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,800 points (now No. 3 behind Jordan Murphy’s 1,802)Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery in the fall on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season. The last time Curry saw the court for the Gophers was with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes in a win at Northwestern on Feb. 28, 2019. Curry’s best performance last season was with 11 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench in a 65-64 victory against Penn State on Jan. 19 at the Barn.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS (14-5, 6-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Cassius Winston 6-1 Sr. 18.0

G – Gabe Brown 6-7 So. 8.7

G – Aaron Henry 6-6 So. 9.9

F – Xavier Tillman 6-8 Jr. 13.7

C – Marcus Bingham 6-11 So. 4.6

Key reserves – Rocket Watts, G, 6-2, Fr., 6.9 ppg; Thomas Kithier, F, 6-8, So., 3.6 ppg; Malik Hall, F, 6-7, Fr., 4.6 ppg; Foster Loyer, G, 6-0, So., 3.6 ppg; Julius Marble, F, 6-8, Fr. 2.1 ppg.

Coach: Tom Izzo 620-237 (25th season) 

Notable: The Spartans are in the midst of four of six games on the road. They already suffered two losses in the first two games away from home during that stretch, falling at Purdue and Indiana. They haven’t dropped a game to the Gophers at Williams Arena since a 76-63 loss on Dec. 31, 2013. Their last loss in the series was 63-58 in the Big Ten tournament on March 10, 2017.

Fuller’s prediction (12-7 with picks): Gophers 71, Michigan State 67.