The sixth Gophers season under Richard Pitino opens Tuesday when Nebraska Omaha visits Williams Arena.
UNO returns four of its top scorers, including senior guard Zach Jackson (17.6 ppg and 6.4 rpg), and former Champlin Park standout and 2015 Minnesota Mr. Basketball winner J.T. Gibson. The Mavericks went 9-22 last season, including 1-14 on the road, but after Tuesday things get more difficult quickly for the Gophers.
Utah, a 23-victory team last year, visits Monday, and then the Gophers leave for the three-game Vancouver Showcase. Monday begins a tough stretch that features seven high-major opponents: Utah, Texas A&M, Washington, Boston College, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Nebraska.
Several early season questions will follow the Gophers into that stretch — none more than their health. Here are five more:
Who’s the new point guard?
Graduated point guard Nate Mason, who finished fifth in program history in career scoring and second in assists, mentored Isaiah Washington last season. Washington began his freshman year slowly, but he averaged 13 points and three assists in his past nine games. Washington is the only true point guard on the roster eligible to play this season, since the NCAA has yet to render a verdict on whether Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr can play this year. Running the point this fall has been junior Amir Coffey, who started in a private scrimmage at Creighton and in the exhibition against Minnesota Duluth. Senior Dupree McBrayer will also share primary ball-handling duties.
How will frontcourt fare?
Redshirt sophomore Eric Curry is the only Gopher with starting experience at center, and that was one game his freshman year, when the team went to the NCAA tournament in 2017. With Curry out up to six weeks after surgery on his previously injured left knee, Pitino looks to 6-foot-10 freshman Daniel Oturu to man the middle next to All-Big Ten senior Jordan Murphy, who led the team with 16.8 points and the Big Ten with 11.3 rebounds per game last season. Oturu, a Cretin-Derham Hall product, has the potential to be one of the Big Ten’s top shot blockers and a low-post scoring presence. Other players expected to be in the frontcourt rotation include 7-foot senior Matz Stockman, freshman Jarvis Omersa and junior Michael Hurt.
Which newcomers will play?
Pitino said all four newcomers could contribute this year, but he is likely starting Oturu and fellow freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur. The former DeLaSalle standout came in with the reputation of being a three-point shooter, but he is one of the team’s best perimeter defenders. Omersa might be the best athlete Pitino has ever recruited, but his playing time might not be as consistent behind Murphy. Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate transfer Brock Stull missed summer workouts, but his experience on the perimeter could prove valuable.
Does Murphy have another level?
National observers seem to be sleeping on what Murphy did last season: lead the nation in double-doubles. Murphy will face swarming defenses in the post again. If he is able to find success inside and out, he will be a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. A better supporting cast inside should help, too.
What strategy changes will we see?
The Gophers finished sixth last season in the Big Ten in scoring offense (75.2 points per game) and 13th in scoring defense (75.1). The lack of consistency executing in the half court kept this team from competing, especially when it was shorthanded after center Reggie Lynch’s departure and injuries piled up. Pitino has hinted at changes this offseason. Does that mean more switching from man-to-man to zone defense? More than the weave-motion offense with dribble handoffs? More will be revealed Tuesday night, and during that tough stretch in November and early December.