By the seventh dunk of the night, the meager crowd at Williams Arena was wide awake.
The Gophers men’s basketball team, in its first exhibition game of the season, was far from perfect in a 74-57 victory over Division II Minnesota-Crookston on Sunday. But what the Gophers lacked in execution, consistency and free-throw shooting, they made up for in entertainment value.
There were dunks, blocked shots and steals aplenty. A freshman raised eyebrows and a little-used veteran took over at times. Ultimately, the Gophers found a rhythm and walked away with a victory they could feel good about.
“That’s why you play exhibition games because you get the nerves out a little bit,” coach Richard Pitino said. “Overall, I thought it was a good step in the right direction.”
But while fans likely walked away with some first impressions, there is plenty that we don’t know yet.
Three first impressions
The Gophers are athletic. They had seven dunks altogether — two from Gaston Diedhiou, three from freshman Jordan Murphy and one each from Charles Buggs and Dupree McBrayer — plus 11 steals and eight blocks, five of those from an aggressive Buggs fans haven’t seen. The Gophers haven’t perfected their high-flying stunts yet — there was one sequence on the run in which Diedhiou got the ball via a couple behind-the-back passes, only to muff the layup — but it sure is fun to watch.
Free throws remain a thing. After finishing 12th in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage last season (67.2 percent), the Gophers looked similarly bad Sunday, sinking only 13 of 25 attempts (52 percent). “We’re definitely making that a big-time part of practice,” guard Nate Mason said. “Free throws here, free throws there. So we’ll be better.”
There is rebounding potential. Yes, after the first half the Gophers looked like they had the size disadvantage even though the Golden Eagles didn’t have a player taller than 6-7. But the Gophers picked up the effort after halftime and saw a balanced effort — with three players grabbing six or more — even without starting center Bakary Konate (foot).
Three things we don’t know yet
What does the frontcourt look like? Konate is on the bench because of injury, and Diedhiou and Murphy still are very much growing. Do the Gophers have the skill and dominance to compete with the post players of the Big Ten? The answer seems to be no, but so far, the frontcourt looks better than most thought.
Is Buggs really improved? The athletic wing was versatile offensively and all over the ball on defense. But we have seen good spurts from the 6-9 redshirt junior before. Is this time for real? “When he keeps his head on straight and he’s moving in the right direction, he’s unstoppable,” senior forward Joey King said. “He’s really athletically gifted, and he’s just a smart kid.”
How good can Murphy be? The competition wasn’t exactly top-notch, but 19 points and nine rebounds is a pretty good start, especially with the freshman playing out of position. Beginner’s luck or the start of a trend?