In the rare opportunity for media to attend a Gophers men’s basketball practice, it was hard to leave Tuesday without several impressions after watching the team for the first time in the 2018-19 season.
Entering his sixth year as Minnesota’s coach, Richard Pitino is only 36, but he’s experienced enough to make the whole process seem routine.
Whether it’s shrugging off questions about if he has something personally to prove coming off a bad season or handling mistakes from younger players in practice by ripping and lightening the mood with humor at the same time.
Pitino was in his element.
And so were some of the returning players. This was the first chance for me to see them behind the scenes since the Gophers moved into their new Athletes Village facility in January.
PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Amir Coffey – Coffey’s name comes up almost every time I have a conversation about the Gophers with a scout or outside observer of the program. Will he have a breakout year? Will Pitino put him in position to show his full potential? Those are some of the questions I hear. The answer after watching two hours of the first practice could be “yes” to both. His size at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds is rare at the guard position in college, but he’s comfortable with the ball in his hands. On Tuesday, the former Hopkins star played both point guard and shooting guard spots (there didn’t seem to be a difference between the two positions). As arguably the U’s best facilitator, Coffey can be too unselfish at times, but he looked to pass and score equally. Feeding the post will be a must with the talent inside this year. Coffey’s best play in the scrimmage was when he drove to the middle to pull the defenders away from freshman Jarvis Omersa, who received a pass for a two-handed dunk. On another sequence, freshmen Daniel Oturu sealed his defender on the block and scored after quickly getting a post feed from Coffey. Coffey was the best player on the floor Tuesday, because he also made plays defensively with a steal for a wide-open dunk and hustling to block a shot in transition. Outside shooting is something NBA scouts will evaluate closely with him this season. Coffey’s jumper looked smooth Tuesday, but increasing his accuracy from three-point range once the season begins will be something to keep an eye on.
Jordan Murphy – Good luck trying to stop Murphy from getting a double-double almost every night. It’s almost a given if he’s on the floor for a majority of the game. Defending Murphy one-on-one in the post is a losing battle most often as well, which is what Matz Stockman and Omersa experienced a few times. Murphy overpowers opponents with his 250-pound frame, but he also has a long wingspan to get his shot off over taller posts. His jump hook and spin move are difficult to stop. I think an area that went unnoticed last season was his improved defense (he averaged a career-best 1.2 steals and 1.0 block per game). Typically he leads by example, but Murphy was more vocal than I’ve ever seen him. I didn’t notice the extended range out to beyond the arc Tuesday, but Murphy will get opportunities to show that this year.
Isaiah Washington – How many jellys do you think I witnessed Tuesday? Probably not as many as you would expect. That’s a sign that Washington is definitely maturing with his approach to the game. Big Ten basketball isn’t New York high school or playground ball. Things he got away with before didn’t fly last year as a freshman. Pitino, though, is encouraged that Washington’s learning to play the right way. The sophomore point guard from Harlem is the best penetrator I’ve seen with the Gophers in a long time. Few defenders can stay in front of him off the dribble. Washington scored several times during the scrimmage attacking the basket. His transition decision making needs a little improvement, especially when he wanted to try one of his trademark finger rolls. Coffey sprinted from one side of the court to the other to swat Washington’s jelly off the backboard on Tuesday. Pitino smiled and wanted to make sure someone caught that play on video. Washington shared ball-handling with Coffey and Dupree McBrayer in practice. Don't be surprised if he plays off the ball at times this year. That definitely suits his game best right now.
THOUGHTS ON NEWCOMERS
Daniel Oturu – Scrimmaged for the first time Tuesday since joining the Gophers. Called for the ball in the post, including when he scored off a nice drop step move on Omersa. Undersized centers will have difficulty dealing with his length and athleticism inside. It wasn’t as easy to hold position once matched up with the 7-foot, 240-pound Stockman. Oturu was taken out of the scrimmage and replaced by Omersa for a mistake in the scrimmage. Curry talked to him on the sideline and helped him learn. That was a glimpse of Curry’s leadership. Oturu runs the floor better than any Gopher player 6-10 or taller I’ve seen in years. He even ran ahead of the entire Maroon squad in several sprints. Oturu has a nice shooting stroke that should help him score outside of the paint and make him a solid free throw shooter. Biggest upside for a freshman big man in the program since Kris Humphries, the last Gopher to make the NBA Draft in 2004.
Gabe Kalscheur – Don’t call him just a shooter. There was a drill where a defender has to turn the ball handler as many times as he can down the length of the floor in a confined space. Kalscheur forced several turns on Washington, who has the best handles on the team. It was impressive to see a freshman that competitive and committed to moving his feet defensively. DeLaSalle High taught him to value defense for sure. Kalscheur didn’t shoot the ball from three-point range like he’s capable of in the scrimmage. But it didn’t matter. He continued to get open shots and launched from deep. That’s what shooters do.
Brock Stull – From the first time he set foot on campus last month until now, Stull’s body has definitely changed after getting into the U’s strength and conditioning program. After trimming down, the Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate transfer will now have to digest the playbook and get into better shape. He’ll have time before the regular season to get acclimated. He made a tough three-pointer in the corner falling down under pressure. Those are the type of plays he made the last two years in the Horizon League. The Big Ten is another level. His leadership is where Stull can make the most impact right away like grad transfer Akeem Springs in 2016-17. He just has to be louder, Pitino said. Making the team run early in practice when Stull’s teammates couldn’t hear his instructions for a jumping jacks drill.
Jarvis Omersa – Blessed with incredible leaping ability, length and a college-ready frame, Omersa definitely looks like he belongs on the court physically. At times, the Orono product couldn’t find ways to stay involved when the game slowed down to half court. He always plays with the high energy. So that consistent effort and his explosiveness should get him on the court this season. Understanding where he needs to be will help Omersa do less thinking and more reacting, a process most freshmen go through. His dunk off a pass from Coffey made the gym go “Oooh.” He played some alongside Murphy in the scrimmage. It reminded me of Pitino’s version of small-ball last season with Davonte Fitzgerald, who transferred in the spring. Pitino kept telling Omersa to "go score the ball" when he had the defender on his back down low, so finally he did just that late in practice.
Matz Stockman – Technically, Stockman’s not a newcomer since he was on the team and sat out last season, but he fits into that category since he’s not played for the Gophers. There hasn’t been much to analyze with Stockman since he arrived from Louisville. He played a bit in last year’s open scrimmage at Williams Arena. He’s a giant who plays a finesse game. The Norway native prefers to take 8-10 footers rather than post up and finish at the rim. Sound familiar Gopher fans? Yes, his skills are very similar to former U big man Ralph Sampson III. Instead of trying to force him to be a physical presence, it probably serves Minnesota’s coaches best to let him play his game. If he can be half the shot blocker Sampson was it will go a long way to helping the Gophers replace Reggie Lynch’s defense in the middle.
A good guess at the starters based on the first practice Tuesday would be Washington, McBrayer, Coffey, Murphy and Oturu, because they all wore maroon during the scrimmage. In gold jerseys were Michael Hurt, Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Stockman. Omersa and Kalscheur (also Washington since the team has only one true point guard) wore both maroon and gold in the scrimmage. Curry wore a maroon jersey, but he was out with a calf strain.