Amir Coffey's return isn't too clear with the start of Big Ten Conference play approaching.
The Gophers starting freshman guard missed a 76-66 win last Wednesday against LIU-Brooklyn with what coach Richard Pitino called a turf toe injury, which is a sprain in the ligaments around the big toe.
Coffey is making progress toward returning to the court. A source said earlier Monday that Coffey “feels fine, but he hasn’t practiced.”
The Gophers (11-1) have five days until their next game Friday against Arkansas State (9-2) at Williams Arena. The Big Ten opener is Dec. 27 against Michigan State at the Barn.
Minnesota definitely needs Coffey back as soon as possible with a tough stretch to start the Big Ten schedule looming. The 6-foot-8 former Hopkins standout is averaging 12.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 29.5 minutes this season.
“Amir is a tough kid,” Pitino said on the radio Sunday. “We made a game-time decision (Wednesday). I said, ‘Go through warmups and see how you feel. If you’re not 100 percent, we will not play you.' He said to me, ‘I feel about 80 percent.’ I said, 'Let’s hold off and see if we can get the win without you to where we can get you healthy.’ ”
How soon can Coffey return, though? The average recovery time for turf toe is two to three weeks. The Big Ten opener would be about two weeks from the last game, but his timetable is uncertain right now.
Coffey’s no stranger to turf toe. He suffered through that and a bad blister for nearly his entire senior season at Hopkins last year. A turf toe injury on his right foot (current injury is with his left foot) in late January forced him to miss four games. His foot still bothered him in March, but Coffey he led the Royals to a Class 4A state title and earned Mr. Basketball honors.
Coffey’s turf toe with the Gophers is on a different foot and doesn’t appear to be as serious as last season in high school, but there’s still concern.
“It’s one of the more painful things,” Pitino said Sunday. “Turf toe you think football. But for basketball players, because there’s so much moving, running and cutting, you’re really jamming your toe into something (constantly). It is extremely painful. It’s something that can really linger if you don’t monitor it correctly.”
Arguably the top two freshmen in the Big Ten are out with injuries. Michigan State’s 6-7 high-flier Miles Bridges has been sidelined since early December with an ankle injury. Bridges leads all conference freshmen with 16.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
The Spartans lost 81-73 to Northeastern on Sunday without him, falling to 7-5. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo hasn’t revealed anything on when Bridges could return. He’s still not practicing, either.
Will Coffey and Bridges both be back and playing next week to start the Big Ten? Only time will tell.
-- The Gophers could have a different look offensively when Coffey returns to the lineup. Pitino said Sunday he's been thinking about some tweaks to get Coffey into more playmaking situations.
Does that mean we're going to finally see Coffey playing point guard a little bit? Putting the ball in his hands more often might also help him score better. Crazy to say for a kid who had a 30-point game last month against St. John's.
But in Minnesota's last five games, Coffey is averaging just 8.2 points, after beginning the season as the team's leading scorer with more than 16 points per game.
"I think just what I can do from an offensive standpoint, I can put Amir at times in passing positions, where he can see over the defense to find a Nate (Mason) or to find a Dupree (McBrayer)," Pitino said. "I’m kind of looking at a couple new things over the break, where we can really progress with our offense to move guys to multiple spots. Again, with Amir in how tall he is and because of his passing ability you can really put the defense in binds, and you move Nate off the ball a little bit, you move Dupree off the ball a little bit and do some of those things."
-- The Gophers received six points in the Associated Press top 25 poll and one point in the USA Today Coaches poll this week. No changes from a week ago, but many more votes will definitely come if Minnesota can extend its winning streak (currently five games) through the first two Big Ten games against Michigan State and at Purdue.