Richard Pitino was spoiled last season when he went to his bench.
His reserves last winter played with confidence. They knew their roles and gave the Gophers basketball team a boost when the starters needed support. Players such as Dupree McBrayer, Akeem Springs and Eric Curry were a major factor during a late-season winning streak that led to an NCAA tournament berth.
The Gophers (9-3), who return from a 10-day break Thursday against Oral Roberts (4-10) at Williams Arena, are starving for some of that consistency from their bench this season.
“I need to be able to go to the bench when guys are tired or in foul trouble,” Pitino said. “I need to be able to go to the bench to hold guys accountable. And it’s been a little bit difficult.”
In the past five games, Minnesota’s bench has been outscored 106-33, including 29-4 in last week’s 68-67 victory against Drake. Only twice in 12 games this season has the U’s bench outscored the opponent’s reserves. And that hasn’t happened in nine consecutive games.
Minnesota and Penn State also are the only two Big Ten teams that have three starters averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season.
The Gophers knew their bench makeup was going to be different this year. They were playing freshmen Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris and junior transfer Davonte Fitzgerald for the first time. They banked on Fitzgerald replacing Curry after a season-ending knee injury in August. Springs’ graduation meant McBrayer went from one of the Big Ten’s top sixth men and a double-digit scorer off the bench back to a starting role.
Minnesota’s most experienced bench players were sophomore forward Michael Hurt and senior center Bakary Konate, who combined to average 16 minutes a game last season.
Facing the toughest early schedule of his career this year, Pitino has used his bench even less. Minnesota is the only Big Ten team with only two players (Washington’s 18.5 and Hurt’s (12.1) averaging double figures in minutes off the bench. Eight teams in the conference have four or more bench players with at least 10 minutes per game.
Minnesota’s bench averaged 16.8 points per game last season, but it is averaging only 6.6 points in the past five games.
“A lot of us are fairly inexperienced,” Hurt said. “We have two freshmen that play. Davonte has been out for two years. I didn’t play a lot last year. We have to do a better job jelling with the starters when we do come in and producing points on the offensive end.”
Pitino said Washington and Hurt are showing enough improvement off the bench to help the team in different ways even when they’re not scoring. Harris and Fitzgerald aren’t at that stage yet.
Harris leads the team in shooting 47.6 percent from three-point range, but he’s only played four minutes in the past four games, including no appearances in the past two. Fitzgerald, who was expected to replace Curry as the backup power forward, is scoreless in his past five games on 0-for-8 shooting.
“Davonte Fitzgerald and Jamir Harris have to be able to come in and not make mistakes,” Pitino said. “We have to develop some other guys.”