A year ago, Richard Pitino and his coaching staff would never have guessed after the first week of Gophers practices that Daniel Oturu would turn into a surefire NBA draft pick and go pro after his second season.

In fact, one of the key questions for last season’s team was if Oturu alone could replace the school’s all-time leading rebounder, Jordan Murphy, as the focal point inside. Boy, did he ever.

The former Cretin-Derham Hall standout ended up becoming the program’s first All-America player since 1999 before leaving the U early for the draft.

Oturu’s departure leaves the Gophers with some of the biggest shoes to fill for any Big Ten program going into the 2020-21 season. It’s one of the five biggest questions for Pitino’s Gophers going into Thursday’s first official practice this year.

“I definitely think they still have the opportunity to be really successful this year,” Oturu said recently. “They have a lot of good pieces around a core group of guys.”

Zero to 35: The 2020 men's basketball roster

Can Drake transfer Liam Robbins become one of the Big Ten’s top centers?

The biggest hurdle for the Gophers involving the 7-footer from Davenport, Iowa, was cleared this summer when the NCAA accepted his waiver to play immediately. Now it’s about whether Robbins’ production in the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference (14 ppg, 7 rpg and 2.9 bpg) will translate to the Big Ten, against the likes of Iowa’s Luka Garza, Wisconsin’s Nate Reuvers, and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn. The Gophers aren’t expecting Robbins to match Oturu’s 20 points and Big-Ten leading 11 rebounds per game from last season. But having a 235-pound frame should help Robbins hold his own physically in the paint to be a factor on the boards. Robbins’ goal is to be the first U player to lead the league in blocks since former Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch in 2017.

How much better will Marcus Carr be after testing the NBA draft waters?

Carr’s best days appear ahead of him. The Toronto native burst onto the Big Ten scene last season, setting the school record for assists in a single season and notching eight 20-point games, including a career-high 35 vs. Ohio State at home. Carr’s game-winning three led to the first victory in Columbus since 2005. Still, Pitino playing him the most minutes (38.0) of any player in conference play resulted in some late-game issues with fatigue. Carr considered leaving for the pros, but he’s back in the best shape of his career and determined to lead the Gophers to more success.

Will the NCAA grant Utah transfer Both Gach’s waiver to be eligible to play this year?

When it comes to the potential of the Gophers this season, Gach’s immediate eligibility could be the difference between a surprise Big Ten contender or struggling to stay on the NCAA tournament bubble. The 6-6 Austin native is talented and versatile enough to explode for 30 points, dish out 10 assists or grab 10 rebounds (very similar to ex-Gopher Amir Coffey). Pitino believes Gach has a strong case to have his waiver granted by coming home, but as of last week, the Gophers had yet to submit it to the NCAA. For privacy reasons, the team can’t discuss the specifics of why they’re still working on the paperwork.

What area will be the U’s strength this season?

Defense is the best bet early. Not having the normal offseason with COVID-19 restrictions kept the Gophers from practicing as a team all summer. It will take time for chemistry to build offensively with six newcomers. But Pitino has more athleticism and length to disrupt opponents than last season when the Gophers ranked 41st nationally in defensive efficiency, the second-highest ranking in Pitino’s tenure. Returning junior guard Gabe Kalscheur and Robbins could be candidates to make the All-Big Ten defensive team. Redshirt senior Eric Curry will be an important piece defending the post once he’s fully cleared to play after his second major knee injury last year.

What would be Pitino’s starting lineup if the Gophers had to play now?

Carr and Kalscheur are Minnesota’s only two returning starters, both in the backcourt. Robbins and Western Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Johnson would be the new starters in the frontcourt. The third starter in the backcourt would be Gach if he were eligible. Until then, sophomore Tre’ Williams has the nod, because he started five games last season. Jamal Mashburn Jr., the freshman most ready to contribute, probably would see time with the starters as well.