Nothing prepares a team better for the grind of conference play than adversity early in the season.
Adversity doesn’t always have to come in the form of losses. Actually, the Gophers obviously can’t afford to lose too many games in nonconference they should win. And they’ve avoided any such upsets so far, but the Gophers also learned some things about themselves having to come from behind against Omaha and Utah in the first two games this year.
During a 2-0 start, Richard Pitino has relied on players other than All-Big Ten senior forward Jordan Murphy to lead Minnesota in scoring, which is a big difference from last season when Murphy had to put up 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds each night for the Gophers to have a chance to win.
In Monday’s 78-69 victory against Utah, freshman Gabe Kalscheur led five players in double figures with 19 points on five three-pointers. Last week, junior Amir Coffey and senior Dupree McBrayer combined for 35 points in a 104-76 win against Omaha. After two games, Murphy’s actually fifth on the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game, behind Coffey (16.0), McBrayer (14.0), Kalscheur (13.5) and freshman center Daniel Oturu (13.5).
Pitino said Murphy has worked on passing a lot in practice this fall. He hasn’t shown off that jumper he worked on all offseason (0-for-3 from three-point range in two games), but his improved passing is a weapon. Murphy has 10 assists in two games, more than he had in the last six games combined last season.
“We’ve told him over and over again guys are going to continue to trap you,” Pitino said. “We ran a set out of a timeout where we thought he was going to get trapped and it worked. Rarely does it work, and it did work that time.”
Here are more takeaways from Monday’s win against the Utes:
SHARING THE WEALTH – All five starters scored in double figures for the Gophers in Monday night’s win, including the breakout game for Kalscheur hitting 5-for-6 from beyond the arc against Utah’s zone defense. Kalscheur wouldn’t have gotten those looks if not for the continued impressive ball movement from veteran guards Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey, who combined for 12 of the team’s 20 assists on 29 baskets. On several possessions, McBrayer and Coffey passed up shots early in the shot clock and swung the ball around the perimeter to find the hot hand. That unselfishness was contagious because Coffey and McBrayer also got their own offense going 25 points combined. Murphy only scored 11 points, but he was 4-for-5 from the field. Opposing teams are game planning to limit him this season, but the Gophers haven’t been hurt by that with several players making shots and plays. This isn’t a one-man show. Minnesota has 48 assists combined in the first two games, which ranks second in the Big Ten (behind Michigan State 24 to 26 apg) and eighth in the nation this year.
KALSCHEUR’S COMPOSURE – There was a point in the first half where Utah was hanging around and nobody from the Gophers seemed willing to take charge. That role was former All-Big Ten point guard Nate Mason’s for the last three years, but he’s not walking through those Barn doors. Heh Heh. Kalscheur hit big shot after big shot in the first half, including a dagger from the top of the key to ignite a 10-0 run. That three-pointer cut the U’s deficit to 18-17, and Coffey’s three-pointer on the ensuing possession gave their team the lead for good. Also, late in the second half the Utes cut a 15-point deficit to single digits in the last few minutes of the game, but Kalscheur sank two free throws and made a tough floater to give his team more of a cushion down the stretch. Most observers wondered how Kalscheur would see consistent playing time this season with Washington, McBrayer and Coffey returning and Brock Stull added as a graduate transfer, but Kalscheur surprisingly earned a starting role. He won state titles, learned toughness and how to play smart and defend at DeLaSalle in high school. The confidence and composure not to be rattled as a young shooter is reminiscent of the U’s all-time leader in three-pointers, Blake Hoffarber. But the last freshman guard to hit five three-pointers in a game was Andre Hollins in a Big Ten tournament overtime win against Northwestern in 2012.
MURPHY CHASING HISTORY – How many players in recent Big Ten history have been a threat to grab 20 rebounds each time he steps onto the court? That’s definitely the rare air Murphy resides as the soon-to-be all-time rebounding leader in Gophers history. The San Antonio native needs just 14 rebounds to surpass Kevin McHale for second in career boards with 950. Mychal Thompson holds the school rebounding record with 956, so that No. 1 spot is within reach in the next few games. Murphy would need 20 rebounds to get there. He’s averaging 13.5 boards in the first two games, so milestone might happen away from home with Minnesota playing Texas A&M, Santa Clara and Washington in the Vancouver Showcase on Sunday through Tuesday. What Murphy did against a bigger Utah team (two 7-footers and Big Ten-level frontcourt size) proves why he definitely has a skill set that translates to the NBA level. Murphy ranks fifth in the nation and second in the Big Ten (behind Northwestern's Dererk Pardon's 14.5) in rebounds per game.
EARLY FOUL TROUBLE – Murphy might have the luxury of not having to score big numbers this season for the team to win, but that doesn’t mean the Gophers can compete consistently without him on the floor. The Utes, who were predicted to finish eighth in the Pac 12 this season, went on a 9-0 run and took an 18-14 lead after Murphy took a seat with two fouls in the first half Monday night. If not for Kalscheur’s outside shooting the deficit could’ve expanded to double digits with Minnesota’s early struggles against the zone. The Gophers absolutely are at their best when Murphy’s providing an inside presence snatching rebounds and attracting double teams to leave his teammates open for shots (Minnesota outscored Utah 19-8 after Murphy returned to end the first half). Opponents will make it hard for him to not pick up some borderline fouls, but the careless ones he needs to avoid. Murphy’s second foul occurred reaching in against Utah’s center driving to the basket. When Murphy attacks the basket and lowers his shoulder opponents are going to look to take the charge often, especially early in the game. Oturu and backup center Matz Stockman both had four fouls against Utah. One Oturu foul came on an over the back call, but the others were from his aggressiveness to protect the rim (finished with four blocks). The frontcourt for the second straight game gave Pitino headaches at times trying to figure out how long he could trust certain players on the floor to stay foul-free. That’s something the Gophers had to deal with in the past with former center Reggie Lynch, but they can’t let it become a big problem this season.
SHOT SELECTION – Can’t remember a bigger difference from one game to the next in assists than Washington going from a career-best 11 assists against Omaha to just one against Utah. Much of that had to do with his shot selection a lot more questionable than in the season opener. Washington’s turnover on a lazy pass to Kalscheur in the first half helped Utah gain momentum to take the lead. He also began taking ill-advised three-pointers instead of driving to attack the middle of the zone. Once Washington did penetrate he found Oturu for a dunk to stop a Utes 9-0 run. Washington started the game 0-for-7 with five of his field goals from long distance. His only made shot was a bank mid-range jumper in the second half. Shots aren’t going to always fall (3-for-12 overall and 0-for-8 from three this season), but Washington can still be highly effective offensively. Transition baskets aren’t always going to be there, but the Gophers are dangerous on the pick-and-roll when Washington makes plays off dribble penetration instead of a deep pull-up jump shot.
PERIMETER DEPTH – Pitino uses the bench to motivate his players on occasion into performing better. Is that something he did Monday night with Stull? One of the top shooters in the Horizon League last season, Stull picked up a lot of experience the last two seasons with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But he didn’t play against Utah after scoring eight points in 15 minutes in the opener. Pitino said when asked about Stull after the game he “can’t play everybody.” But what does it say when Coffey, Kalscheur and McBrayer play 31-plus minutes in the second game of the year? Maybe he doesn’t trust Stull enough yet with him joining the team in the fall. But the Gophers will likely need either Stull or Michael Hurt (just two points in seven minutes Monday) to give the starters more rest during a tough upcoming stretch this month. McBrayer was still in the game under a minute left when he landed awkwardly on his left leg after a jumper. He was removed from the game after showing a slight limp. Dealing with his lingering leg issues for most of last season, the Gophers have to keep McBrayer healthy in his senior year. Spreading out the minutes on the perimeter might just help keep him, Coffey and Kalscheur fresh. Pittsburgh transfer Marcus Carr receiving positive news on his waiver appeal Wednesday would clear up any depth issues at point guard, but it’s still an uphill battle after the NCAA denied him the first time.