NEW YORK – Looking ahead to next season was hard for coach Richard Pitino and his team after a disappointing 65-54 loss to Rutgers ended the Gophers’ season Wednesday in the opening round of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.
No March Madness was a foregone conclusion for months as the losses piled up. Not even making it to March was even harder to swallow.
All-Big Ten junior forward Jordan Murphy looked around the locker room and felt sorry for not being able to accomplish more this year for the seniors, especially point guard and captain Nate Mason.
The Gophers should be more equipped to make a run at the Big Dance for Murphy’s senior season, though. He will return as one of the nation’s top players, and there’s more help on the way.
“I think we have a very talented group coming in,” said Murphy, who finished the season averaging 16.8 points and 11.3 rebounds. “We have Matz [Stockman] and three freshmen who have never played with us. We just have got to get them ready for next season.”
Stockman is a 7-foot-1, 240-pound senior transfer from Louisville. Eric Curry, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore, is almost fully recovered from a season-ending knee injury in August. Curry would’ve been the starting center with Reggie Lynch suspended and expelled this year for an alleged sexual assault.
The U’s future should also be in good hands with 6-10 Daniel Oturu from Cretin-Derham Hall, 6-8 Jarvis Omersa from Orono and 6-4 shooter Gabe Kalscheur from DeLaSalle in an all-Minnesota 2018 recruiting class.
“I hope they’re all one-and-dones and we win a lot of games,” Pitino joked. “You never know with freshmen. I’ve watched them all play this winter — and I’m really, really excited about all three of them.”
Last year’s top Gophers recruit, Isaiah Washington, had a bittersweet ending to his freshman season Wednesday with a team-high 18 points. Mason believes Washington can take over as the new floor leader if he isn’t afraid to talk more next year.
“He’s got to be the vocal leader on the court, because the team is going to look at the point guard for leadership,” Mason said. “He has to kind of step out of his shell and lead these guys. They’re going to be stacked.”
The Harlem native took a big step in his development by averaging 13 points and three assists in his final nine games. The potential three-guard lineup next season could be Washington, Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey. Coffey (shoulder) and McBrayer (leg) need to spend the offseason getting healthy.
“I think we can have a great season next year,” Washington said. “All these guys, our chemistry got way better. Next year, we’re going to make a run I believe.”
Depth was a major concern this season. Washington, Michael Hurt, Davonte Fitzgerald and Jamir Harris were forced into extended roles because of injuries. But that experience could pay dividends moving forward. Washington, Hurt, Fitzgerald and Harris started a combined 23 games.
Pitino is expecting to take a few days off to spend with his family, but he’ll get to recruiting when he returns. There’s at least one scholarship available for next season, which he could use to add more depth at point guard or in the post.
Ending this season with 14 losses in 16 games and a depleted roster made Pitino rethink a lot about things to make sure the Gophers don’t suffer from the same issues again.
“As you reflect back at it, did we not have enough depth, did we not do a good enough job?” Pitino said. “You’re always thinking at ways you can get better.”