The Gophers men’s basketball team has been in a recent pattern of bad-good-bad-good seasons. Is this the year Richard Pitino’s program breaks out of the cycle and earns a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament?
First take: Michael Rand
At this point in Pitino’s tenure, contending for a tourney berth every year should be an expectation.
My biggest concerns about this year’s team are overcoming key missing pieces — early departure Amir Coffey, the graduated Jordan Murphy and injured Eric Curry chief among them — and figuring out how this team is going to score.
Minnesota reached the NCAA tourney and won a game last season without having a very efficient offense. The Gophers attempted among the fewest threes in college basketball last season both as a per-game number (343rd out of 353 teams) and percentage of overall shot attempts (344th out of 353 teams).
They didn’t take them because they didn’t make them (305th nationally at 31.7%). They masked that deficiency by getting to the free throw line and executing with veteran players. I’m not convinced they can do that this year.
Marcus Fuller: Consistency no doubt has been lacking with the Gophers since before Pitino arrived. Not since 2009 and 2010 under Tubby Smith have the Gophers reached back-to-back NCAA tournaments.
Basically starting over with seven newcomers makes it easy to dismiss Pitino’s chances of repeating the success of last season with 22 wins and getting to the NCAA tournament’s second round. Eight of Minnesota’s top 10 players are either sophomores or freshmen. You mentioned the injury to Curry, and the key departures of Coffey and Murphy. But there’s potential to go dancing again with some talented new faces.
I’m pretty sure the Gophers are the only Power Five program with a three-guard lineup of players who have started games in the Big Ten, SEC and ACC. That experience should help Gabe Kalscheur, Payton Willis and Marcus Carr not tremble when going up against some really tough guards in the Big Ten. Pitino believes in Daniel Oturu turning into a star in the middle as a sophomore, so there’s your inside and outside tandem. My biggest issue is, what will their supporting cast be like?
Rand: Good point about their youth. Just looking at Big Ten co-champs Purdue and Michigan State last season, they had a ton of contributions from older players.
This is where a loss like Coffey — understandable in the big picture — really hurts. Very good but not NBA draft-quality players like that seldom used to leave before their eligibility expired. That trend is changing, and it threatens to hurt programs like Minnesota in particular.
Fuller: Fans don’t but Pitino understood why Coffey left early. He was ready to pursue the NBA dream and make money, which is another hot topic with the NCAA now favoring some type of name, image and likeness idea. That could keep stars like him in college longer.
I really don’t see another Gopher like Coffey who could go for 30 points in a big game this year.
Rand: It’s the Gabe and Daniel show.
Fuller: You should see how motivated those two guys are to prove they’re two of the Big Ten’s best after being snubbed on the all-freshman team last season. Not many believe the Gophers can get back to the NCAAs or have any stars. Pitino shouldn’t need any pep talks this year.