Trying to judge college basketball exhibition games is like trying to pick the best players for your fantasy football team based on NFL preseason games.
It could be fool’s gold if a certain player has a big game since the competition isn’t very good. Some starters barely see any playing time because it’s not the regular season.
That being said there was enough to take away good and bad from the Gophers men’s basketball team’s 109-53 exhibition victory Thursday night against Minnesota Duluth at Williams Arena.
WASHINGTON’S DECISION MAKING – How about Isaiah Washington giving the Gophers instant offense off the bench this season? It’s certainly possible with how difficult he is to stop off the dribble – and it seems Washington also added a more reliable three-point shot to his arsenal. More than just jelly. The sophomore guard passed up bad shots to move the ball and throw it inside to establish a post presence. He didn’t finish with a ton of assists (two), but Washington was looking for teammates who weren’t ready for some of his passes. He made great decisions both with the ball and with his shot selection. He finished with 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting, including 3-for-4 from three-point range. Washington also had four rebounds and two steals. The best play of the scrimmage in my opinion was his give-and-go with Daniel Oturu after the freshman big man stole the ball and ran the floor to be rewarded by Washington with a pass back for a two-handed rim rocker. Both of his assists were to Oturu, who had a big smile on his face when Washington ran up to celebrate the baskets with him. Is there some chemistry building between the two? That’s a good sign if so.
FRESHMEN IMPACT – Two freshmen in the starting lineup. That is rare not just for Pitino’s program but for the Big Ten. You won’t find too many teams in the league going that young. But this isn’t a rebuilding situation. Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur have proven to be two of the best players right now at their position over more experienced teammates. Defensively they give maximum effort. They also bring Minnesota more offensive firepower as well. Oturu might be the best low-post scoring threat on the team (17 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks against Duluth). The Gophers threw the ball inside to the 6-foot-10 Cretin-Derham Hall product right away Thursday. Jordan Murphy is clearly the team’s best frontcourt player, but he’s at his best facing the basket and attacking off power dribbles and spin moves or scoring on offensive putbacks and in transition. Oturu’s size and length make it difficult for undersized centers to contend with him on the block when he’s showing off his impressive footwork and post moves for someone his age. Kalscheur’s 12 points came with him not making a single three-pointer. The former DeLaSalle standout didn’t settle for jumpers when his shot wasn’t falling. He also drew fouls and hit his free throws (6-for-7). Pitino raves about Kalscheur’s maturity and basketball IQ for a freshman. He also showed it with four assists and just one turnover. The U’s most exciting athlete is hands down Jarvis Omersa, but he doesn’t have to just dunk to make an impact. Omersa scored 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting playing a lot below the rim. His energy is contagious and will get him playing time this season.
DEFENSIVE EFFORT – Oturu was a shot-blocking force, but the Gophers swatted 10 shots total with 7-footer Matz Stockman and 6-8 guard Amir Coffey both contributing two blocks each. Minnesota Duluth’s tallest player was 6-7, so it wasn’t going to be pretty when the Bulldogs tried to score over Minnesota’s superior size and length. Probably more impressive than the blocked shots were the 10 steals. Six different players contributed to that deflection category, including three from grad transfer Brock Stull and two from Oturu. Pitino said Thursday he wants his team to run and play more up-tempo this season. In order to play fast the Gophers need to rebound and go, but they also need to force more turnovers and pick up steals at a higher clip than last season. They ranked ninth in the Big Ten in steals (5.7) and 11th in turnovers forced per game (11.4) in 2017-18.
FRONTCOURT FOULING – One thing injured sophomore Eric Curry’s absence does is take away an experienced big man who knows how to defend without fouling. Curry could leave the paint to guard ball screens and was quick enough to stick with perimeter players. Oturu, Murphy, Omersa and Stockman are all susceptible to picking up fouls for being out of position on dribble penetration, which happened a bit Thursday. All of Minnesota’s frontcourt players had at least two fouls, including Oturu and Omersa with seven combined. Building chemistry defensively and newcomers learning the schemes will help the post players improve in pick-and-roll situations. Now that he’s likely the starting center in place of Curry, Oturu can’t blindly leave his feet and try to block every shot that comes his way. Perfecting his timing and not falling for shot fakes too often will help to keep him out of foul trouble this year. He's young, though, so it will take time.
DEFINING COFFEY’S ROLE – It’s obvious that Coffey starts the game as the Gophers’ point guard now, but Thursday he drifted to other spots as the game went on. That put Coffey in a situation where he was standing and watching the action like he did at times his first two seasons. The ball movement has been better than ever so far with Coffey’s new role. Does Pitino keep Coffey as the lead guard who brings the ball up the court and initiates the offense? Or is the versatile sophomore better off at the off guard spot where he can score more? He bounced around to three different positions and scored six points in 17 minutes against Duluth, but Coffey only took two shots. He also finished with four rebounds, two assists and two blocks. This could be a breakout year for Coffey if the Gophers figure out how to use him effectively.
FIGURING OUT ROTATION – This isn’t a knock on how many players saw the court against Duluth on Thursday. It’s an exhibition game, so Pitino was able play 10 players double-digit minutes to figure out what he has with depth. Expect this platoon system to continue for Tuesday’s season opener against Nebraska Omaha, but it can’t go on for much longer than that. Minnesota’s November and December schedule is tough with six games against major conference opponents. That means less time for Pitino to figure out his best seven or eight players and stick with that rotation (at least until Curry gets healthy possibly by Big Ten play). Out of the 10 players who scored and got decent playing time Thursday, there will be some who expect to be in the rotation every night. But that’s just not realistic to be competitive against better teams. Your best need to play a majority of the game, but everyone needs to be ready. Off the bench, Hurt, Stull, Stockman and Omersa could be used differently depending on the opponent.