At the lowest points during an 8-23 season last year, Richard Pitino had to remind frustrated Gophers basketball fans how things could be drastically different in 2016-17.
Reggie Lynch, the best center in the program, would be eligible to play after sitting out as a transfer. Pitino’s best recruit, Amir Coffey, and other newcomers were coming to add depth and more talent.
Things so far have turned out as well as he could have imagined then with a 6-0 start, the program’s best since 2011.
“I think we’re pretty balanced,” Pitino said. “I think we can be a good offensive team, a good defensive team. Obviously, we’ve got [four guys] averaging in double figures. So I don’t know if we’ll be great at one thing. I think we’ll be good across the board at everything.”
Lynch is a game-time decision for Monday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup at Florida State (5-1). He missed Friday’s 57-45 victory over Southern Illinois because of an ankle injury.
But when Pitino’s team is healthy it could be one of the most complete squads the Gophers have had since they reached the NCAA tournament under Tubby Smith in 2012-13.
“I thought they were going to be much improved,” said Jim Dutcher, who coached the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten title. “To project the Gophers at the lower part of the upper division [in the Big Ten] is not unrealistic. They could definitely be an upper-division team and have a great chance to play in the [NCAA] tournament.”
The Gophers have the Big Ten’s best Rating Percentage Index (No. 18) and remain unbeaten after three weeks of the college basketball season, with their best wins against St. John’s and Arkansas.
This will be a week, though, the Gophers can prove they’re worthy of top-25 consideration. They follow Monday’s game with one Saturday against Vanderbilt in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Seminoles were ranked No. 25 last week, and feature projected NBA draft picks in 6-7 sophomore Dwayne Bacon (18.2 points per game) and 6-10 freshman Jonathan Issac (15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds).
“I think it’s going to be a really special, special game for us,” Gophers sophomore Jordan Murphy said. “This is a really talented team that Florida State has. A really, really big team as well. It’s a really good marker for us to see where we are as a team and individually.”
Florida State has one of the deepest teams in the ACC with 11 players who average double figures in minutes played. Minnesota is deeper than any other team since Pitino’s arrival in 2013, although he uses primarily a seven-man rotation.
Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald would have been a eighth player in the rotation, but the junior forward is out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Gophers filled his role by committee, with senior graduate transfer Akeem Springs, sophomore Ahmad Gilbert and freshman Michael Hurt.
Last season, Bakary Konate and Gilbert started 32 games combined. This season they have zero starts and average only nine minutes combined. Gaston Diedhiou started the first two games at center last season, but he has only played in two games this season.
“There were guys who were playing too many minutes last year,” Pitino said. “It didn’t necessarily mean they can’t be productive. I think they can bring value. When you say a complete team, [it means] certain guys are playing minutes that they need to be playing.”
Guards Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and Coffey have been on the court the most this year, playing between 28 and 32 minutes per game. Freshman Eric Curry is playing as many minutes (26) as Murphy, an All-Big Ten freshman forward last season.
That could prove to be beneficial, if Curry sees extended minutes Monday with Lynch limited by an ankle injury. Five newcomers will be playing their first road game with the Gophers.
“I’m really excited for it, actually,” Curry said. “I just want to get that road experience out of the way.”
If Murphy struggled last season, the result was most definitely a loss without the team’s lone inside presence. But that’s not the case this year. Curry and Lynch are low-post threats. Mason, Springs, Coffey and McBrayer have provided perimeter scoring.
Murphy, who averages 11 points, scored just six after being limited by foul trouble in the Gophers’ season-opening victory Nov. 11 over Louisiana-Lafayette. They still had five players in double figures. Murphy and Mason, team captains, had just two points combined in the first half against St. John’s on Nov. 18, but Minnesota led by 10.
Those were signs of how much deeper the Gophers are this season.
“This is the most complete team that I’ve been a part of,” Murphy said. “The personnel we had last year doesn’t compare to this season.”