There could be a different Gophers backcourt rotation forming than the one we saw for the first 13 games — the one we saw before their biggest victory of the season.
It’s been no secret Richard Pitino has been frustrated with the inconsistency of Isaiah Washington. The coach didn’t let that hold the Gophers back, turning point guard over to Amir Coffey. The junior quickly grew into the role and now leads the Big Ten in scoring in conference play at 24 points per game.
Washington, a four-star recruit from New York City, went from being Coffey’s backup to not playing at all in Thursday’s road victory over then-No. 22 Wisconsin, the Gophers’ first in Madison since 2009. So does that mean Washington rarely sees the court moving forward?
“It’s not like he’s being buried on the bench,” Pitino said. “That doesn’t mean Isaiah is not going to play anymore.”
The backcourt of Coffey, senior Dupree McBrayer and freshman Gabe Kalscheur worked well against the Badgers, though, and graduate transfer Brock Stull was the main spark off the bench. We will see if Pitino sticks with this rotation Tuesday, when Maryland visits Williams Arena.
You could make the case the Gophers (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) played better without Washington, especially defensively. Still, Pitino has to decide if the 6-1 sophomore’s playmaking ability — last month he had 22 assists in a two-game span — is worth more than having Stull’s maturity and experience on the floor.
“If [Stull’s] playing well, it’s very hard to play 9-10 guys,” Pitino said. “I thought he was adjusting well throughout the course of the game. I thought the game fit him. That’s why Isaiah didn’t play.”
Washington had been better statistically than Stull in the first 13 games, based on scoring average (5.2 to 2.2), rebounds (2.2 to 1.0), assists (team-high 4.1 to 0.6) and minutes (18.2 to 10.3), but not in three-point shooting (13.8 percent to 60 percent).
The 6-4 Stull had played on a team that had won at Wisconsin before, though — with Wisconsin-Milwaukee in December 2015. His three-point shooting (8-for-12 this season) and poise in big games are areas the Gophers need help. Stull’s six points on back-to-back threes in the second half were critical in staving off Wisconsin’s comeback. His season-high 22 minutes might not be just a one-time thing.
“I think now is where I need to be,” Stull said Monday. “Me and coach, we talked before the season. Our target point was like Jan. 1, ready for Big Ten play to have everything click. Just to get where I needed to be physically and mentally with the team and all the reps.”
McBrayer and Stull are roommates, so their chemistry carries over to the game in the backcourt. There’s also a sense of urgency being seniors who have one last chance to make the NCAA tournament.
“We got a really good win, so we can’t settle,” said McBrayer, who scored 14 points and had two crucial late steals Thursday. “We want to be great. We want to win the Big Ten. That’s the goal. Make it to the NCAA tournament. Remembering those goals every day is the key.”
Coffey stepping up to replace Nate Mason as the point guard and go-to scorer helps the Gophers’ chances of meeting those goals. The former Hopkins standout had 15 of his 21 points in the first half at Wisconsin, and he had a career-best 32 points, to go with six rebounds and six assists, in the Gophers’ previous Big Ten game, a Dec. 5 victory over Nebraska.
It’s uncertain whether it will be Stull or Washington getting the most minutes Tuesday to help Coffey and Co. in the backcourt, but the Gophers obviously want to recreate the success they had against the Badgers.
“We’re going to need that,” Coffey said. “The guys off the bench have to be ready, because anytime could be your time.”