The Gophers’ inside lineups — and outside expectations — quickly have changed.
Senior center Reggie Lynch is no longer allowed to play for the Gophers basketball team, and no one is sure if or when he’ll be able to do so again. Last season’s Big Ten defensive player of the year was “suspended from athletic competition” by Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle in the aftermath of an investigation that found Lynch was “responsible” for sexual misconduct an April 2016 incident.
The U’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action recommended he be banned from campus until at least August 2020. Lynch will appeal the ruling, sources told the Star Tribune.
The Gophers, who are 13-3 and 2-1 at the start of the Big Ten portion of the season, must now prepare as if they will have to play without one of their best players, a defensive force who arguably has been the best shot blocker in the nation. Lynch’s absence will have a major impact not just on the team’s ability to meet high expectations, but it also changes the landscape of the Big Ten.
Coyle said Lynch, 23, could still practice with the team but will not play, or even be on the team bench, starting with Saturday’s game vs. Indiana at Williams Arena. Whether Lynch ever plays for the Gophers again, coach Richard Pitino said, “I have no idea.”
“Certainly not to make light of this and make it about basketball, but if you’re asking me specifically about basketball, you’ve just got to have the mentality as a team, it’s kind of the ‘next man up’ mentality,” Pitino said. “Our guys, they’re a prideful group and they’re playing well, so they’ve got to be ready for it.”
Minnesota was considered to be third in the Big Ten’s pecking order, behind Michigan State and Purdue, but now Pitino’s team might be a middle-of-pack program at best, according to Big Ten analyst Jon Crispin.
“I think they went from third in the Big Ten in my opinion to about seventh,” Crispin said. “Of course, they’re not going to compete for a Big Ten title. They might not have anyway. Sorry, but Purdue and Michigan State are so far ahead of the game.
“When you take Reggie Lynch off the table, it completely changes the dynamic of this team [and] the rotation. Now they’re competing to be in the NCAA tournament. But they’re going to have to do it by playing small ball.”
Will Pitino attempt to play his 6-foot-7, 250-pound All-America candidate Jordan Murphy at center to replace the 6-10, 260-pound Lynch? The Gophers listed their projected starter for Saturday as 6-11 senior Bakary Konate, but he’s only averaging nine minutes a game this season.
Lynch, a starter the past two seasons after transferring from Illinois State, was having a career year in scoring (10.1), rebounds (8.0), blocks (4.1) and minutes (26.4) this season. The Edina native had 11 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in Wednesday’s 77-67 victory over Illinois.
Pitino’s frontcourt was hit with a significant loss before the season when 6-9 sophomore Eric Curry suffered a major knee injury. Curry, the backup power forward and center last year, has proved difficult to replace.
“Depth has always been an issue,” Crispin said about Minnesota. “You’re going to have to be a guard-based team. You’ll have to play faster. I could see Jordan Murphy playing the five more often than not. Just trying to pick up the tempo a bit. That’s about all they can do at this point.”
The Gophers still feature a backcourt of All-Big Ten senior point guard Nate Mason, preseason All-Big Ten guard Amir Coffey and junior Dupree McBrayer. Mason returned Wednesday after missing a game with an ankle injury to score a team-high 17 points against the Illini.
Murphy is also not just Minnesota’s best player, but he is arguably the midseason Big Ten player of the year. The San Antonio native is second in the league in scoring (19.0) and first in rebounding (12.9), which ranks second in the nation. Murphy’s also going for his Division I-leading 17th straight double-double Saturday, which would tie for the longest streak since Tim Duncan in 1996-97.
Pitino said several times before that he didn’t think Murphy could do much more than he is doing, especially scoring. But the Gophers are going to need a lot more bench production than they got recently to resume Big Ten play. Konate, Isaiah Washington, Davonte Fitzgerald and Michael Hurt had been gaining confidence with more playing time to end nonconference, but they were outscored 34-4 off the bench against Illinois.
Pitino might have to experiment with lineups against Indiana to see what works best.
“Obviously, difficult circumstances,” Pitino said. “As a coach, I’ve got to do my very best to get my team ready for a big, big game [Saturday].”