Despite high expectations facing Amir Coffey entering his freshman year with the Gophers men’s basketball team, the former Hopkins star was more worried about fitting in than making a grand statement of his arrival.
Building chemistry with his new teammates was more important than standing out. Coffey didn’t want to seem like a hotshot 18-year-old trying to take over the team.
“He’s not going to come in and rock the boat,” said his father, Richard Coffey. “But there’s one thing to have talent, there’s another thing to show you have the talent.”
Coffey was already the first freshman to start in a Gophers opener in five years. Friday, he became the first Gophers freshman to score 30 points in a game since Kris Humphries did it twice in 2003-04, and Monday he was named Big Ten freshman of the week.
How Coffey continues to assert himself in a balanced offensive attack will be a factor for the Gophers, who will look to improve to 5-0 when they play Arkansas on Tuesday night at Williams Arena.
“Until you’re on that stage, until the lights are turned on, you can kind of forecast something with each guy,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “Obviously, to see Amir that game show what he did is exciting for us. He’s not scared of the moment.”
Center Reggie Lynch’s nine blocks set the tone defensively in Friday’s 92-86 victory over St. John’s. Coffey was nearly as dominant offensively, a bit surprising since his previous high was 13 points.
“It’s a new system, new offense, new teammates,” Coffey said Friday. “So just getting comfortable playing with these guys, trying to find myself.”
There were earlier glimpses of Coffey’s aggressiveness. On Nov. 14, he had all 10 of his points in the second half in an 84-67 victory over Texas-Arlington, including eight during a 22-1 run that lifted the Gophers out of a 41-35 halftime deficit.
Against St. John’s, Coffey had 17 points in the first half after Minnesota trailed 22-9 to open the game. The crafty lefthander dunked in transition, drove the lane and used the glass. He hit jumpers and got to the foul line.
Pitino wasn’t going to allow freshmen to talk to the media this year. But he was forced to change that policy Friday, just like he adjusted the offense to get Coffey in mismatches against opposing defenses. He’s the tallest guard in the Big Ten at 6 feet 8.
“I think he’s a special talent,” said Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo, who covered Friday’s game. “His length and athleticism are good. But the thing I was most impressed with is he knows how to play.”
Last season, the Gophers’ Jordan Murphy earned All-Big Ten freshman honors, but he didn’t start until his 12th game. Two years ago, Nate Mason had one of the best seasons for a freshman guard at Minnesota — but seniors Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu were the leaders, and Mason didn’t start until several games into Big Ten play.
Coffey was thrown into the starting lineup his first game.
“When Amir first came in you could tell he had a different mind-set,” said Mason, now a junior captain. “It kind of reminded me of myself a little bit. My freshman year I kind of wasn’t scared of nothing, really. He’s able to step in the fire.”
Four Gophers are averaging double figures in points. But Coffey, the 2016 Minnesota Mr. Basketball, leads the team and entered Monday ranking 10th in the conference in scoring (15.8), second among Big Ten freshmen behind Michigan State’s Miles Bridges (16.0).
Only four freshmen in the country have scored 30 points in a game, the others being Washington’s Markelle Fultz (twice), California’s Charlie Moore and St. John’s Marcus LoVett.
LoVett had 31 points against the Gophers on Friday, but he took 27 shots. Coffey only needed 14 shots, making nine. He hit 11 of 12 free throws. He also had two steals and four rebounds.
“Points aren’t everything,” Coffey said. “You can impact the game in different ways, whether that’s defense, stops, rebounds, assists.”
But Coffey’s father gave his son a pep talk before the last game, saying he needed to be aggressive — and he took it to heart.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean shoot the ball,” Richard Coffey said. “It means to put yourself in position to make a play for yourself and your teammates.”