MILWAUKEE – Jordan Murphy stared blankly at the locker room floor Thursday evening. He searched for words to describe the disappointment over the Gophers’ 81-72 loss to Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
But when the conversation shifted to next season, the sophomore forward lifted his head and grinned.
As much as the quick exit in the Big Dance stung, the Gophers are confident they will be one of the top teams in the Big Ten and have a chance to make a March Madness run in 2018.
“We’re going to be fine,” Murphy said. “Our goal obviously is to win the Big Ten, make it back here and try to get even further.”
The lack of depth for fourth-year Gophers coach Richard Pitino was apparent when he used what was basically a six-man rotation without senior guard Akeem Springs, who missed the final two games with an Achilles’ tendon injury.
But Pitino is expected to have the rest of his key players back, including Murphy, All-Big Ten guard Nate Mason, All-Big Ten freshman team guard Amir Coffey and Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch.
Minnesota — which could be a preseason Top 25 team next fall after taking last season’s 8-23 record and accomplishing a Big Ten-record 16-win improvement — also will add former Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald and the highly touted incoming freshman duo of Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris.
“They raised the expectations so quickly,” Pitino said. “Next year, it’s going to be even more — obviously, when you have almost everybody back and you got some exciting recruits coming in.”
Coffey and sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer combined for 33 points and nine assists in Thursday’s loss. Mason struggled with only five points, playing despite an injured hip. The trio played 40, 37 and 38 minutes, respectively.
The Gophers will go from limited backcourt options off the bench to potentially two deep at each position.
Washington, a four-star point guard from St. Raymond High School in New York, could play a backup role to Mason next season. Harris, a three-star guard from Patrick School in New Jersey, gives the team a three-point-shooting threat to replace Springs.
“For sure this team has a bright future,” Coffey said Thursday. “Another good recruiting class is coming in with Jamir and Isaiah. … I think they’re going to add a lot to this team. Only people leaving are Akeem and Darin [Haugh, a walk-on turned scholarship guard] as seniors.”
With his skill and athleticism at 6-8, Coffey will be one of the most versatile players in the Big Ten next year. Fitzgerald and freshman Eric Curry also should be impact players for the Gophers at multiple positions.
Fitzgerald, who missed this season because of a knee injury, can play small or power forward. Curry, a power forward and center, had 11 points against Middle Tennessee.
“It will help me a lot to get Davonte back, because he’s so versatile, too,” Curry said. “But I’ll be ready to play any position Coach puts me in. I’d like to work on my low-post scoring. I’m 6-9; I should be able to score in there very efficiently whenever I want to.”
Lynch is another player hoping to return next season with a more polished offensive game. He broke the Gophers’ single-season blocks record with 114 this season.
The 6-10, 260-pound Edina native knows staying out of foul trouble and becoming a scoring presence would take his game to another level. Looking ahead makes Lynch excited, but he also doesn’t want people to forget how much the Gophers accomplished this year.
“It’s obvious that this team made a huge improvement,” Lynch said. “We were the most improved team in the country. It was a historical Gophers team.”