If things had gone as planned, Marcus Carr would be the Gophers’ starting point guard and playing around 28 minutes per game. He’s not, because NCAA decisionmakers failed the young man miserably.
Also, if things had gone as planned, Isaiah Washington would be further along in his development, more under control, more consistent and able to be trusted to run the team. He remains an enigma.
Relying on a piecemeal point guard approach is not what Richard Pitino had in mind. Point guard remains basketball’s bedrock that sparkles when manned effectively. The Gophers will spend the rest of the season trying to win enough games to reach the NCAA tournament without a true point guard.
Much like driving a car without power-steering, it can be done — but it’s not easy.
“It’s not ideal to be scoring in the 60s,” Pitino said. “But that may happen to us a little bit. That’s all right. Just find a way to win.”
The Gophers rank ninth in Big Ten games in scoring at 68.5 points per game. Low scoring output is a reflection of several issues, not just their point-guard situation. A dearth of perimeter shooting and turnovers have stymied them, too.
But point guard remains the most important position, and circumstances have required Pitino to handle it unconventionally.
Wings Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer basically share duties in bringing up the ball and initiating the offense. Both players are comfortable with the ball in their hands. Coffey has a unique style when he’s aggressive and in attack mode. But neither is a natural point guard.
The lack of a Nate Mason-type floor leader becomes especially noticeable in half-court offense, or when a possession gets late in the shot clock and they need someone to run a high pick-and-roll.
“We’re struggling at the end of the clock,” Pitino said. “You’re going to get to the end of the clock a lot in our conference. Just the way it works.”
Pitino was forced to adjust on the fly after the NCAA denied Carr’s waiver request and appeal after transferring from Pittsburgh. Carr left the school after Pitt coach Kevin Stallings received a $10 million buyout. Carr noted he felt trapped in a “toxic environment” at Pitt and worried about his mental health.
The NCAA offered no public explanation or transparency in ruling against Carr, but the governing body approved other players’ waiver requests, clearing the way for them to play this season. The inconsistency and hypocrisy displayed by the NCAA was shameful.
Pitino needed a veteran transfer point guard because Washington’s freshman season showed he wasn’t ready for a larger role. He’s still not.
Washington has struggled to mesh his individual talent with a structured offense. Turnovers and poor shot selection remain a problem. He has flashes of positive play, but his inconsistency prevents him from being reliable enough to be the primary point guard.
“He’s a dynamic player and he needs to understand that you don’t always need to be dynamic, especially early [in the shot clock],” Pitino said. “You’ve got to work the defense a little bit. You’ve got to move the ball. He wants to attack in the first five, six seconds. He’s got to be able to pick his spots a little better, but I think he’s getting there.”
Pitino shared those comments before the Michigan game. Then Washington had five turnovers and one missed shot in 12 minutes against the Wolverines. Another step back for him, which forced Pitino to lean heavily on others.
Pitino’s best option remains a tag-team approach with Coffey and McBrayer — unless or until Washington proves that he deserves more playing time. That hasn’t happened yet, so Coffey in particular will have the ball in his hands a lot. He has to balance initiating the offense while looking for his own scoring opportunities.
The point-guard switcheroo was disruptive with its late notice. The season isn’t doomed because of it, but a lot more difficult than planned.