Not much will surprise Richard Pitino when the Gophers’ first official practice of the 2018-19 college basketball season starts Tuesday.
Pitino’s team has already been on the court. Two weeks ago, the Gophers had their most spirited practice this offseason, but it’s a long way to go before the opener Nov. 6 against Nebraska Omaha.
“We’re getting there, which is good because it’s been a lot of fun working with these guys,” Pitino said recently. “It’s really good to work with them every day. You just got to be mindful of you can’t wear them out too much. It’s a long, long season. I had to tell myself it’s September. We’ve got to pace ourselves.”
The biggest uncertainty going into this season will be the health of the team. Pitino said a week ago redshirt sophomore Eric Curry and freshmen Daniel Oturu would likely not be fully cleared when practice starts Tuesday, looking at a mid-October timetable.
Other than the team’s health these are five big questions going into the first Gopher practice:
Will the Gophers be able to replace Nate Mason at point guard?
Nate Mason averaged a career-best 16.7 points and team-best 4.2 assists last season, finishing fifth in program history in career scoring and second in assists. The Georgia native didn’t go out like he wanted to going from leading the Gophers to an NCAA tournament as a junior to finishing 15-17 his senior year. Still, one of the bright spots in Mason’s last season was being able to mentor Isaiah Washington to take his place. Washington was hard-headed at first, needing to be benched for several games during Big Ten play. But the New York native turned his freshman year around by averaging 13 points and three assists in his last nine games. Washington is the only true point guard on the roster eligible to play this season since word is Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr isn’t getting a waiver from the NCAA to play right away. Help with ball-handling duties will come from a few players, including junior Amir Coffey, senior Dupree McBrayer and graduate transfer Brock Stull.
Who will play the most minutes at center this season?
The pre-Reggie Lynch Gophers and post-Reggie Lynch Gophers were a completely different team last season. The former Big Ten defensive player of the year was suspended after the U’s investigation into an alleged sexual assault. In his last game, Lynch had 11 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in a win against Illinois. Minnesota was 13-3. After that, the Gophers went 2-14 the rest of the season minus arguably the best shot blocker in the country. With Lynch, Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou gone, Pitino will look to Curry, Oturu or Louisville transfer Matz Stockman to man the middle. Oturu, who has a 7-2 wingspan, has the most defensive potential of the three. The 6-10 former four-star recruit finished his state-championship senior season at Cretin-Derham Hall as one of the top shot blockers in Minnesota prep history. Curry’s the frontrunner to start if healthy, because he has the most experience. He backed up Lynch as a freshman on Minnesota’s NCAA tourney team in 2017. Stockman is the biggest post presence standing nearly 7-2 with a 7-6 wingspan, but he played sparingly in three years with the Cardinals. Stockman missed the summer trying to graduate to transfer to Cal, but he’s the healthiest center right now.
Has Jordan Murphy added a jumper to his game?
If you ask returning All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy whether he has three-point range, the answer would be “of course.” Problem is there hasn’t been much proof of his outside shooting touch in the first three years of his college career. The 6-7 senior shot a career-best 31.4 percent from beyond the arc last season (11-for-35), which was a step in the right direction. But Murphy will need to make an even bigger jump this year to keep opposing defenses from swarming him in the post to limit his impact offensively. If he’s able to play inside and out this year, Murphy should be a candidate for Big Ten player of the year honors. He was arguably the most productive player in the country inside of the arc before struggling without Lynch in the lineup. Despite Murphy’s averages of 16.8 points and Big Ten-leading 11.3 rebounds as a junior, he’s still underrated on several college hoops player rankings entering this season.
What changes were made to Pitino's offense and defense?
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 halfcourt kept this team from competing, especially shorthanded with Lynch’s departure and injuries to Curry, McBrayer and Coffey. Communication will be the key to making strides offensively and defensively this season. Pitino also hinted at changes to his philosophy. Does that mean more full-court pressing? Does that mean tweaking the offensive plays to be more than the often predictable weave motion offense with dribble handoffs? We’ll see once the coaching staff has more time with this team. Having versatile post players being able to step out away from the basket gives Pitino a lot more opportunities to open up the playbook.
How much of an impact will the newcomers make for the Gophers?
With four eligible newcomers (Carr and Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis are sitting out) expected to see the court this season, it’s almost a given that one of them will be a major contributor to the Gophers. Pitino has been the most impressed with freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur’s ability to help the team on both ends. Kalscheur came in with the reputation of being just a three-point shooting specialist. After summer practices, the Gophers talked about the former DeLaSalle standout as possibly being their best perimeter defender. He’s much bigger than other freshmen guards entering the program in recent years at 6-5 and 200 pounds. That will help him compete physically much quicker at the next level. When talking about physical ability, freshman forward Jarvis Omersa is the most athletic player Pitino has ever recruited. He can be a game-changer with his leaping ability and constant motor, but Omersa’s playing time might not be as consistent with Murphy logging heavy minutes at power forward. Oturu (recovering from shoulder surgery) and Stull (missed summer workouts) aren’t ready yet, but they’ll likely get the most playing time of the newcomers. That’s based on the need of what they bring to the team. Oturu’s size, length and athleticism at the center spot will be critical against Power Five opponents. Stull’s leadership and experience as a top performer at Milwaukee-Wisconsin the last two seasons is another important piece to what could be a turnaround season in 2018-19.