When Richard Pitino watches his first practice of the 2017-18 season on Friday, he’ll be looking at a collection of players far more talented and experienced in his system than he’s ever had at Minnesota.
Expectations are the highest they’ve been for more than a decade.
Despite returning all but one player from last season’s 24-win NCAA tournament team there are still several questions that the Gophers are facing as practice officially starts.
- Who fills Eric Curry’s role?
The Gophers suffered a big blog when 6-foot-9 sophomore Eric Curry was lost for the season with a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus last month. Curry showed the most improvement this summer on the team. As a highly-skilled 235-pound big man, he had the outside shot to play on the perimeter and size to rebound and defend inside. Pitino said junior Davonte Fitzgerald and sophomore Michael Hurt will likely fill his role at power forward. Senior Bakary Konate will be expected to play more minutes than last season (9.7) as the backup center.
- Health status of key players
Curry had major knee surgery last week and won’t be ready to play until next season. Other players are battling minor injuries. Senior center Reggie Lynch, the 2017 Big Ten defensive player of the year, has been recovering the last month from offseason meniscus surgery. He also had the same precautionary surgery done last year before the season, but Lynch was ready for the opener. Junior guard Dupree McBrayer missed weeks of summer practice nursing a stress reaction in his left leg. What exactly is that? Well, in medical terms it’s an injury on the inside of the shin bone caused by overuse and precedes a stress fracture. So it was probably good McBrayer caught this early and rested during the last couple months. Fitzgerald sat out last season with a torn ACL, but he has fully recovered and is now expected to be cleared for full contact in practice. He won’t rush things, though, coming back from his second major knee injury.
- How much Jelly can we expect?
The U hasn’t had a freshman recruit in any sport like Isaiah Washington, maybe ever. Washington’s talent as New York’s Mr. Basketball is evident but so is his social media fame as the co-creator of the Jelly Fam movement. Washington will likely be returning All-Big Ten senior Nate Mason’s backup at point guard to open the season. But could we see Mason and Washington in the same starting backcourt at some point? Possibly. They’ve been paired together already in practice this summer.
- Who will be the team’s leader?
This is definitely Mason’s team. But it was last season as well, for the most part. Meaning, the Gophers were at their best when he was playing at a high level (with 31 points and 11 assists in the win at Big Ten champion Purdue). They had a tough time winning without him playing well (suffered hip injury and was poor in NCAA tourney loss to Middle Tennessee). But Akeem Springs’ absence last season after his torn Achilles in the post season was the biggest leadership loss. Who will replace him as the most vocal player on the team this season? Mason is mostly, a quiet lead-by-example guy. But maybe he can become more with Springs gone. He probably needs to.
- What’s the next level for Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey?
Mason was the first Gophers player to be All-Big Ten first team last season since Vincent Grier in 2005. But both Murphy and Coffey had their stretches being the team’s best player. Coffey had the best freshman debut for a Gopher since Kris Humphries in 2003-04, leading the team in scoring early in nonconference play. The highlight was a 30-point explosion in the win against St. John’s. The 6-foot-8 former Hopkins standout gave Pitino his second straight all-league freshman with Murphy receiving the honor in 2015-16. Murphy’s stretch at the end of the Big Ten regular season earned him All-Big Ten third team honors. He was a double-double machine during Minnesota’s eight-game win streak. Coffey and Murphy clearly have All-Big Ten talent, but can they establish themselves as the best at their positions in the conference this year? If so, that could help Minnesota be right in the mix with Michigan State for the league title.