There were not more than 6,000 actual bodies in Williams Arena to watch the Gophers open the men's basketball season on Friday night. The opponents from Louisiana-Lafayette were far from the Ragin' Cajuns of Dwight Lamar lore, but this did not prevent Barn goers from receiving assurance that they will be witnessing much-improved play from the home team in the winter of 2016-17.
It has to be better than last season, the most miserable in the history of a program dating to 1896. Yet, better-than-awful was not the standard for the basketball displayed by the Gophers in this opener.
Coach Richard Pitino's fourth team was impressive in all the areas in which it was dreadful in the 8-23 catastrophe that was his third.
It started up front, where Reggie Lynch, the 6-10 transfer from Illinois State, gave the Gophers a defensive presence near the basket that will make life much easier for sophomore Jordan Murphy.
As a freshman, Murphy was forced to try to play that role. It now appears that he can roam about and take a swat at shots that aren't redirected by Lynch. Murphy was almost in cruise in the first half as Lynch did the heavy work.
The hindrance for Lynch could be foul trouble, although Friday's officiating crew was overexuberant in blowing whistles. The rugged style generally permitted in the Big Ten will give Lynch more freedom to make contact on his blocks and rebounds.
A year ago, Bakary Konate was the big guy Pitino had to use when necessary with Murphy. Now, with Lynch and Eric Curry, a strong 6-9 freshman, Konate might have to settle for a few courtesy minutes in important games.
The No. 1 revelation on Friday was Amir Coffey. His father, Richard, started for the Gophers for four seasons (1986-1990), and in this case the apple has fallen far from the tree.
Clem Haskins was so hard up when he took over as coach for the 1986-87 season that he brought in Coffey after Richard had finished his time as an Army paratrooper. Richard was 6-5 (at most), played center and won battles for rebounds at an amazing frequency.
Amir is 6-8, slender, and plays on the perimeter. The first reaction is to wonder whether Coffey can live up to the advance billing with that thin frame. Then you watch him play the first half of his collegiate career and see that he's a step ahead of most everyone on what's going to happen next on the court.
Richard Coffey found space near the basket with his power and will. The son has a tremendous instinct for finding space, and for finding teammates when it's time to give up the ball.
Pitino's job here at Minnesota could have been saved when Amir decided it was more important to be a legacy Gopher than to get discouraged by all the problems the program suffered last season.
Nate Mason was an excellent freshman for the Gophers and a decent sophomore guard on the lousy team of 2015-16. Then, he got booted for the final four games of the season along with Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer after a video of …
Well, if you follow the Gophers, you know the story.
Dorsey left, which was a break for everyone, and Mason and McBrayer returned, which was a strong stand for them to take, knowing they are on double, not-so-secret probation when it comes to the possibility of a future indiscretion.
Mason staying was as important to these Gophers as were Coffey, Lynch and Curry (in that order) arriving. Mason didn't do much for most of the first half, and then all of a sudden he had two steals and drove for buckets, and then hit a three before the buzzer to make it 48-26 at halftime.
The final was 86-74, allowing the Gophers on opening night to achieve 12.5 percent of their 2015-16 victory total.
Another interesting character added to mix is Akeem Springs, the graduate transfer from UW-Milwaukee. The Panthers (with Springs) were one of the three nonconference teams to beat the Gophers in The Barn last December.
Pitino arrived here from Florida International in 2013 and brought Malik Smith with him as a graduate transfer. Smith didn't shy away from a long-distance shot all winter. I'm guessing the Gophers were able to land Springs by showing him tape from Malik's bombs-away approach.
Akeem is going to put it up. No question about that.
And the Gophers, well, I haven't been the No. 1 booster for young Pitino, but this bunch is going to double last season's victory total of eight, and we'll see what happens from there.