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Pitino has high praise for the Gophers' four newcomers

Whether the Gophers can be substantially better in 2016-17 or whether they fail to effectively pull out of the rut of the last two seasons depends on many things.

Returners have to get better. Transfers Davonte Fitzgerald and Reggie Lynch – who is still suspended while being investigated following a May rape arrest – will have to live up to their high billings. But the Gophers will also have to rely heavily on four newcomers, three of them freshmen, to slide in at the next level and contribute in big ways.

All except graduate transfer Akeem Springs, who is finishing up summer classes at Milwaukee, are on campus and coach Richard Pitino discussed them this week.

Here is some of what he said about Springs (a 6-4, 210-pound guard), Amir Coffey (a 6-8, 190-pound guard from Hopkins), Eric Curry (a 6-9, 220-pound forward from Memphis) and Michael Hurt (a 6-7, 210-pound forward from Rochester):

Coffey has obviously been hyped quite a bit coming out of high school. How has that transferred to summer workouts and practices so far?

Pitino: “He’s really, really good …he is a phenomenal passer. We run a lot of ball screens and he comes off the ball screens and he can just see over the top. That’s what the NBA is all about, and this league is all about that. Michigan runs a lot of good stuff, but their personnel is all about tall guards who can throw over the top. That’s what we’ve been trying to get and with Amir, he can do that. He’s doing a great job in the weight room, he’s been extremely professional. He’s an eager learner and I think he’s going to play major minutes right away.”

Are you planning on playing him some at the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions then?

Pitino: “The question is really what lineups do I want in the game – I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of what he can play, it’s who do I want him playing with … I think there’s great flexibility there.”

What combinations have you liked early?

Pitino: “The other day in practice I really liked [the lineup of] Nate [Mason], Dupree [McBrayer] and Amir, Murph  [Jordan Murphy] at the 4, Curry at the 5 and that lineup looked really, really good. And those three guards together, that was really fun to watch.”

Do you like playing Curry in the post in general?

Pitino: “Very much so. He can play the four and the five. He’s 6-9. He’s a tremendous passer, a great runner, a great rebounder. He’s got All-Big Ten [team] ability down the road.”

Could he end up backing up Lynch – assuming he returns to the team – at center then?

Pitino: “He could. We’ve played him at it. Reggie is out and Bakary [Konate] has been out a couple of weeks with a quad [injury]. So we were looking at all those things. Summer time is a good time to look at different lineups because foul trouble and injuries unfortunately are going to happen.”

And if Lynch doesn’t return?

Pitino: “I think [juniors] Bakary and [Gaston Diedhiou] have been – Gas has had a pretty good summer, Bakary was out for about five weeks. He’s practiced the last week or so, but he’s still out of shape because he’s missed some time. But it’s been good for Gas. I always look at all those things, injuries, as an opportunity for someone else. We’ve still got a long way to go. We haven’t really put in a whole lot of offense, we’re working on some post offense stuff, getting them to have a feel for playing with each other. But I’m looking at all different types of lineups. Would I want to go small with [Jordan Murphy] at the [center] and Davonte at the [power forward]? That’s kind of an intriguing lineup for me.”

What about Hurt? As I learned first hand, he’s got the reputation for a crazy work ethic. Have you seen that?

Pitino: “He’s easily the hardest worker I’ve ever been around … My dad [Louisville coach Rick Pitino] always spoke about [current Oklahoma City Thunder coach] Billy Donovan as the hardest working player he ever coached. Michael is like that. Often times, you come into the gym at 6 a.m. and he’s in there shooting. He gets in early every single day, he comes back at night. He listens to every word you say. He’s a coach’s dream. He’s got a long way to go like all the freshmen do but you know he’ll catch up.”

His position is also one of the biggest log jams on the team. Is redshirting him a consideration at all?

Pitino: “I don’t think you make those decisions in July. I like the flexibility of the team. We can play some of those [wings] at the 2 and you’re looking at a team where you’ve got a 6-5 guy at the 2, a 6-7 guy at the 3 and a 6-8 guy at the 4. I think this team has got a different look if we stay healthy.”

Finally, Springs. Do you know when he’ll be on campus?

Pitino: “He’s just finishing up his summer classes. We don’t have any concerns there, we feel good about it. He’s wrapping up soon and then our guys are leaving at the end of next week – they’ll all come back right before that first football game, and he’ll be here then.

“We’re excited about getting Akeem from a leadership standpoint because the only senior we have is [walk-on] Darin [Haugh]. So Akeem will bring that. Akeem was a good player on a good team. That’s what I tell people all the time. They won 20 games, they beat us, they beat Wisconsin at Wisconsin. They played Notre Dame at Notre Dame tough and he was really good. So he’s been good for a while, and I think that will translate over. And the Big Ten fits his style.”

Are you leading any of his workouts from afar?

Pitino: “You can’t really do that too much. We’ve kind of focused on his academics standpoint to make sure he’s doing his job there. He’s a pretty self-motivated kid and the Milwaukee staff has been great, I’ve been talking to them. I know he’ll be ready. It’s his last go-round. He’s a mature kid, too.”

Gophers defense could get overhaul from Pitino

Throughout much of last season, Richard Pitino’s once-signature defensive press appeared to be an afterthought.

In many games, it disappeared altogether or was used only in momentary spurts, with wavering success rates.

Next season, fans might see even less of it.

This week, coach Richard Pitino said one the areas he is pondering is the defense and what it could – and should – look like moving forward.

“We may not be as scrappy and full-court pressure as we were the first two years,” the coach said. “We may be a little different defensively. I’m trying to figure it all out right now.”

In Pitino’s first season, 2013-14, he had speedster Deandre Mathieu to lead the press and Austin Hollins, a scrappy and fundamental defender. The following year, Mathieu still led the show while Nate Mason and Andre Hollins chipped in. Even last year, the Gophers had Kevin Dorsey, one of the quickest guards that has come through Minneapolis in recent years. The press, at some points, made sense.

Now, it appears Pitino has chosen size – they’ll have four guard/wing types who are 6-6 or taller and just one scholarship player shorter than 6-3 – over lateral quickness and what was originally one of the cornerstone pieces of his system.

The Gophers should have significantly more talent than the last two years, but the overall speed might decrease. Therefore we might see more of the (gasp!) dreaded zone and man-to-man defense if some of the newbies can prove trustworthy.

But shaking up the defense shouldn’t come as a shock or a disappointment for fans that saw last season’s defense end up second to last in the league in defensive efficiency and opponent’s two-point field goal percentage. As much as anything, a shoddy, porous defense contributed heavily to the Gophers’ 23 losses.

“I’m thinking about what I want to do from a defensive standpoint,” Pitino said. “This year’s team looks different. We have big guards, they’re not as laterally quick, so it may not be the smart thing to do to pressure.

“I think this is the time to work on all those things and make the decisions in October.”