When Richard Pitino assembled the pieces for his NCAA tournament team two seasons ago, he believed he had something special but didn’t know how well his Gophers would fit together.
Four newcomers were joining a few returning players who had just suffered through an eight-win season. That ensemble ended up being the right mix of talent and experience to finish fourth in the Big Ten, win 24 games and earn a No. 5 seed in the tournament.
Trying to whip up that same recipe for success again in his sixth season as Minnesota’s coach, Chef Pitino will use most of the same main ingredients. Upperclassmen Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer, Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt, along with third-year sophomore Eric Curry, were part of the best turnaround season in Gophers history in 2016-17.
That quintet knows what it’s like to go through the grind of a Big Ten season, handle curves in the road and still finish strong. These players will have to be the Gophers’ guides through another tough league slate that resumes Thursday night against No. 22 Wisconsin (10-3 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) in Madison.
“If we want to do what we’re trying to do, it’s those five guys,” Pitino said. “Those five guys are the key to our team. Those five guys know what it takes to win in this league. Those guys went a whole month of February and did not lose in this league. They were a [No. 5] seed and had one of the best regular seasons here in a long, long time.”
Murphy, McBrayer and Coffey were starters two years ago. Curry was one of the first players off the bench. Hurt was not always in the primary rotation, but he played in 26 games that season. The Gophers were briefly ranked in the Associated Press poll, fell out of the top 25 during a five-game Big Ten losing streak, then rallied to win eight in a row en route to solidifying Pitino’s first NCAA bid.
“Those five guys [have to] continue to get better, as well as help the other guys, because we’ve got a long way to go,” Pitino said. “What excites me as a coach is that I can do a lot to continue to improve these guys, and I think we can be a good team.”
Pitino received a pleasant surprise when he was able to trust true freshmen Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur to be starters from Game 1. The flip side of that: It also meant older players weren’t ready to fill those roles.
Sophomore guard Isaiah Washington has flashed glimpses of his potential with three double-digit assist games, but Kalscheur was more reliable offensively and defensively to be a starting guard. Oturu, the top recruit in last year’s class, was talented enough to produce in Curry’s absence and has a streak of four consecutive double-doubles. But freshmen have a tendency to be hot and cold. Kalscheur went scoreless and Oturu was overpowered inside and in foul trouble in a 20-point loss at Ohio State earlier this month.
“The important thing with our freshmen is keeping them patient,” Murphy said. “That’s a huge part of it, knowing that and making sure to reiterate that their time is coming. Obviously, the Roman Empire wasn’t built [overnight]. You’re going to be great one day, but you have to enjoy the process and try to get better every day.”
The Gophers (11-2, 1-1) will lean heavily on their senior co-captains, McBrayer and Murphy, who have endured the most highs and lows.
McBrayer is the emotional leader, having the courage to play while his mother was severely ill before losing a battle with cancer last month. The 6-5 southpaw is healthy after an injury-plagued junior year, and he’s showing signs of regained consistency by averaging 14 points in three games leading into the resumption of the conference season.
Murphy, who leads Minnesota with 15.7 points and a nation-best 12.6 rebounds per game, has tried too hard at times to carry the team. The 6-7 senior is trying to cut down his turnovers (he leads the team with 2.9 per game), but his game has come a long way, though. He has figured out how to play hard consistently and dominate what he does best: clean the glass.
Coffey, Hurt and Curry still are working toward finding their groove as Murphy has. But they already showed how committed they were to turning the Gophers around. As members of Pitino’s 2016 recruiting class, they stuck with Minnesota despite watching the U experience an abysmal 8-23 season before they arrived.
A trip to the NCAA tournament as freshmen was their reward for being loyal, but they’ve had to overcome adversity since. Curry is trying to battle back from knee injuries. Coffey missed 15 games because of a shoulder injury last year. Hurt made strides in 2018 but fell out of the rotation to begin this season.
Still, that trio has an important role to fill if the Gophers want to achieve their goal of making it back to the NCAA tournament.
Coffey had a career-best 32 points in the U’s first Big Ten victory this season against Nebraska, but can he consistently be the go-to guy in the backcourt? Can Hurt be confident enough to make shots when he’s called upon? Can Curry handle more playing time and provide a lift as a backup for Oturu and Murphy inside?
The five Gophers still around from the turnaround season of two winters ago can influence this Big Ten season and provide answers to those questions starting Thursday.
“We have to take advantage,” McBrayer said of the core players’ experience. “That falls on me and [the others], just getting these other guys ready. They don’t know what the Big Ten is like. Now they’re really going to see.”