The NCAA Final Four will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in April, and despite being regarded as one of the best teams in the country at the start of last season, the Gophers aren’t on any national title contender lists for 2018-19.
A big reason for that is after starting last season 13-3 and reaching as high as No. 12 in the Associated Press rankings, the team lost a number of players to injury and suspension. They lost 14 of their final 16 games to finish 15-17 overall.
And the early projections sure aren’t in line with what coach Richard Pitino of about this team. 247Sports has them ranked 11th out of 14 teams in their Big Ten preseason poll.
Amir Coffey was one of the injured, as the 6-8 sophomore shooting guard played only twice over those final 14 games after injuring his right (non-shooting) shoulder, an injury that eventually needed surgery.
Coffey recalled his injury. “This was the Illinois game [Jan. 3] and I kind of interlocked arms with somebody and we were going separate ways. It just yanked my shoulder out of place,” he said. “I played one game after that and then I went out.
“… It’s always tough sitting out. I did that in high school when I tore my ACL my junior year [at Hopkins].”
It was especially tough for the Gophers because Coffey, one of 10 players selected to the preseason All-Big Ten team last year, was improving in every aspect of his game.
He averaged 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and shot .475 percent from the field and .368 percent from three, all improvements over his freshman season.
Becoming a leader
Now Coffey, who said he is rehabbing daily but is probably two months away from being fully cleared, will be asked to be a leader on a balanced and deep Gophers team that still has very high expectations from everyone on the team.
“If everybody stays healthy, I think we’re a really talented team and we have a combination of young guys and juniors and seniors,” Coffey said. “We have people with experience and if everybody stays healthy and we work hard, we can make it.”
The Gophers will have standout seniors in Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer while featuring juniors Michael Hurt and Coffey, and also Eric Curry, who was part of the same recruiting class with Coffey but missed all of last season because of a knee injury. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Washington will take on a bigger role with Nate Mason graduated, and the freshman class of Gabe Kalscheur, Jarvis Omersa and Daniel Oturu is one of the most highly anticipated in recent Gophers history.
The Gophers also added some transfers from power conference schools: Marcus Carr from Pitt and Payton Willis from Vanderbilt.
“Our freshmen and our transfers all add pieces,” Coffey said. “Our freshman are really skilled and talented. They’re just learning the little stuff we go through. Our transfers are also talented. I think they can all add a special piece to the team.”
When asked what he needs to improve, Coffey said his whole game.
“I just say everything because you can never stop improving,” he said. “Obviously I want to work on my jump shot, three-point shooting and dribbling, stay consistent in the weight room and keep evolving all-around.”
Coffey recalled his decision to come to the U.
“There was a lot that went into the recruiting process, but in the end everybody just tries to find a place to call home and they have a good bond with the coaching staff,” he said. “I visited Northwestern a couple of times but I didn’t really feel very comfortable there. I just made the decision not to go there and I felt at home here.”
Amir’s father, Richard Coffey, as a four-year letter winner with the Gophers from 1986 to ’90 and played with the Timberwolves. Amir said basketball has been a part of his family and his life for as long as he can remember.
“[My father] was a huge influence. To be honest I can’t remember not playing basketball,” he said. “As far as I can remember I always had a basketball in my hand, me and my sisters, even if it was just one of those tiny hoops when I was younger until I was able to shoot in a real gym.”
Nia Coffey, Eric’s sister, became one of the most decorated stars in Northwestern history and now is in her second WNBA season with the Las Vegas Aces.
“That was awesome, just seeing her go through all of that work, high school, college, all of her accomplishments, and seeing her add that one was a pretty cool feeling,” Amir Coffey said.
So would he consider following his dad and his sister to the pro ranks if he had a successful junior season?
“It just depends on how well I do,” he said. “That’s kind of a tough question to answer right now, because I haven’t went through this season yet, so it just depends on how it goes for me.”
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said the decision by the NCAA to allow redshirt football players to play in up to four games during the season might be one of the biggest rule changes of his life.
Fleck said he and his staff are figuring out how to best implement the new rule.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s one of the most significant rule changes in probably the last 10 to 15 years in college football, because there is so much strategy now involved,” he said. “When do you play them? Who do you play them against? The timing is going to be everything. Who do you play and who do you not play? But I think the NCAA got it right this time just in terms of the health of the student-athletes.”
One benefit is that when starters are banged up late in the season, teams can have a redshirt player step in for a game and absorb some of the hits while giving another player time off.
“ Once you get to the end of the year and it’s nine to 10 games in and there’s guys that are beat up and still playing, it gives them a chance to maybe take a few hits off of themselves and give it to somebody else that can withstand it or have it happen at a young age and get their feet wet,” Fleck said. “It provides a ton of depth.”
Fans might notice that teams use more of their redshirts at home because the NCAA hasn’t changed football travel rules, so teams still only can bring a certain number of players for road games.
“You might see more guys playing at home games than away games just because of the travel rule at different times. It’ll be interesting. It’s all strategy. I have thought about it a lot,” Fleck said. “We will continue to think about it throughout the entire year. We have so much youth and so much inexperience that it will be interesting to see how much we use of it and who we use it with.”