DES MOINES – Forget February. Amir Coffey and the Gophers have.
At the end of their Feb. 13 game at Nebraska, Coffey was whistled for a foul on James Palmer Jr. with 1.1 seconds left. Palmer hit two free throws to seal Minnesota’s fourth consecutive loss. A home victory against Indiana followed, but that wasn’t enough to stop a nasty slide. Minnesota lost twice more, to Michigan and Rutgers, to drop to 1-6 in February.
The team’s veterans decided to have a players-only meeting soon after the Feb. 24 loss at Rutgers. Coffey is usually quiet and leads by example, but on this day he had some things to say. Seniors Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer played their roles as captains, and they, too, described how this team could salvage its season. McBrayer told Coffey then what he’d been saying privately to his road-trip roommate all season: “I need you to be aggressive; I need you to be the Amir that we know you are,” McBrayer said. “I need you to be a pro. This team goes as you go and everybody follows.”
Coffey, a 6-8 junior guard and Minnesota’s leading scorer, took those words to heart and onto the court. He has since tapped into potential he always had inside, with the ability to take over games as one of the most versatile scorers in the Big Ten. During a five-game scoring stretch a Gophers player hadn’t produced in 15 years, Coffey was piping hot. He carried the Gophers (21-13) at times, willing them into their second NCAA tournament appearance in three years.
Coach Richard Pitino hopes Coffey’s inspired play continues in March, starting with the first-round matchup Thursday against Louisville (20-13) at Wells Fargo Arena.
“Amir needs to be the type of player that he is in order for us to advance,” Pitino said. “He likes that big moment. We need him to be assertive. We need him to be aggressive and attack.”
Coffey can’t point out a specific thing on the court that has him playing the best basketball of his college career. In a five-game span from Feb. 28 to March 15, he averaged 25.8 points per game to lead the Gophers to a 4-1 record that secured their postseason aspirations.
“I would just say I’ve been really trying to lock in this last part of the season,” Coffey said. “I knew how important it was to make it to this point and come to the tournament. Just a mind-set thing, to keep going and stay aggressive. Nothing changed in the offense or new schemes with the coaches. I would just say it’s a locked-in mentality.”
A historic scoring binge
Taking responsibility for the Gophers’ struggles led to Coffey, Murphy and McBrayer wanting to carry the team out of its February funk. Coffey said the upperclassmen felt like “the load was on us.”
“We were looked at as the leaders of this team, so that’s who called the meeting,” he said. “Since then, I feel like we’ve been trending in the right direction.”
No player has made a bigger difference since that meeting than Coffey. In February, he averaged only 13.5 points per game (his lowest-scoring month of the season) on 41.2 percent shooting. In March, he’s averaging 22.4 points on 48.6 shooting, while converting more consistently on two-point field goals (55.8 percent to 46.2), taking more free throws (8.6 per game to 3.4) and shooting them better (76.7 percent to 66.6).
“I feel like anybody who gets fired up, it makes you click. You run faster, you jump higher, you run harder.”
Minnesota junior guard
His 31 points and 12 rebounds at Northwestern in a 62-50 victory Feb. 28 and a career high-tying 32-point performance in an 73-69 upset of then-No. 11 Purdue on March 5 were the first back-to-back 30-point games in the program since Vincent Grier in 2005. His 21 points in the 75-73 Big Ten tournament quarterfinal win vs. the Boilermakers made him the first U player with five consecutive 20-point games since Kris Humphries in 2004.
Coffey let his emotions show during this stretch, more than ever before.
“I feel like anybody who gets fired up, it makes you click,” Coffey said. “You run faster, you jump higher, you run harder. Showing emotion can be bad sometimes, but it can also work for you as well.”
Receiving back-to-back Big Ten player of the week honors and earning all-league for the first time made March Coffey’s best month, but his family keeps him humble. His father, Richard — one of the top rebounders in Gophers history — often reminds his son to crash the boards to start the fast break himself. His sister, Nia, shares constructive criticism on the phone after watching Coffey’s games on her laptop from Australia, where she’s been playing professionally. She hates when her brother misses free throws.
“She focuses more on the mistakes than anything else,” Coffey said smiling. “She lets me know what I could’ve done better. I appreciate it from her. I usually have people telling me I did good.”
‘I found it’
Richard Coffey remembers the day his son called him at the end of the summer, excited about being healthy and what he could add to the Gophers’ offense. Amir had just been fully cleared after recovering from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss 15 games last season.
“He said, ‘Dad, I was playing point guard in practice,’ and he said it was awesome,” Richard said. “I think Amir is kind of a positionless guy. I do like the way they’ve used him this year. Even times when he plays off the ball, I think he loves being on the wing and running.”
Coffey at full speed in the open court is a force. A player with his huge stride and size who can change directions and handle the ball is tough to stop. He can finish with a dish, a dunk or an off-balance layup.
Handling the ball and playing multiple positions isn’t new for Coffey. He did so in high school, while leading Hopkins to a Class 4A title as a senior in 2016.
“Amir played literally everywhere,” Royals coach Ken Novak Jr. said. “Last year, there were too many times when he didn’t have the ball. … It’s just the matter of getting the ball in positions where he can make decisions and put pressure on the defense.”
Coffey worked hard with trainer Ben Felz to get healthy and strengthen his body in the offseason. He gained 15 pounds, up to 210, and he’s able to finish better against contact.
“He’s put on weight, but you get tougher with confidence,” Pitino said.
Pitino will be the first to admit his team doesn’t have a point guard. Coffey agrees. He might dribble up and start the offense, but he’s not a true point.
But the way Coffey is taking over games offensively lately, defining him doesn’t really matter.
“I kind of found my niche in the offense, where I can score and make plays,” Coffey said. “That’s why people see such a difference and so much scoring from me. Earlier, I was trying to find my niche and where I could go. It’s just about balancing that. I think I found it.”