Richard Pitino notices more talent, depth, size and potential in this Gophers basketball team. There’s not much at all that resembles last season’s 8-23 squad.
“We had to start over last year,” Pitino said. “As tough as it was, we’re pretty excited about this year’s team. We got some good pieces. We’ve got to continue to get better.”
On Friday night against Southern Illinois at Williams Arena, Minnesota hopes to open the season 6-0 for the first time since 2011. Pitino could have his best team in four seasons with the Gophers. Here are five reasons why:
The Gophers significantly upgraded their starting lineup by adding freshman guard Amir Coffey and redshirt junior center Reggie Lynch. Coffey leads the team and Big Ten freshmen in scoring (16.4 points per game), including a season-high 30 and 19 in his past two games. Lynch leads the Big Ten in blocked shots (3.6), including nine vs. St. John’s. Senior transfer guard Akeem Springs, a team captain, and freshman forward Eric Curry have scored in double figures a combined five times off the bench. They combined for 23 points vs. Arkansas on Tuesday. Freshman forward Michael Hurt has gotten opportunities to play. Minnesota’s newcomers account for 51 percent of the team’s 85.4 scoring average. The Gophers’ 43.5 points from newcomers are third most in the Big Ten.
Mason and McBrayer
It wasn’t clear if junior guard Nate Mason and sophomore guard Dupree McBrayer would be back with the program after the sex video scandal involving Kevin Dorsey’s social media accounts resulted in a four-game suspension last season. Dorsey transferred, but Mason and McBrayer returned and worked hard not only on their games but to earn back the team’s trust. Mason was named a team captain. McBrayer is the Gophers’ most improved player. He has seen jumps in scoring average (5.9 to 12.4 points), three-point shooting percentage (25 to 54) and field-goal percentage (33 to 61). Mason’s scoring average is about the same at 13.4 points, but he’s averaging more assists (4.5 to Big Ten-best 6.2). Mason also ranks sixth in the conference in minutes played (32.6).
During their 14 consecutive losses last season, the Gophers’ defensive efficiency ranked as poorly as 106.7, the worst among Power Five conference teams at one time and second worst of any Big Ten team in the past 15 seasons, according to kenpom.com. No wonder the losses kept piling up. The true test will be once conference play starts, but the Gophers’ defensive efficiency rating through five games is 97.6. They rank fifth in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense (36.9) and first in blocks (7.0).
Size and athleticism
The Gophers are the tallest team in the Big Ten with an average height of 78.2 inches, ranking 26th nationally. Coffey is the conference’s tallest guard at 6-8. Pitino played smaller in the frontcourt last season with 6-8 Joey King and 6-6 Jordan Murphy. But he now has 6-10 Lynch and 6-9 Curry as options inside. He can bring 6-11 junior Bakary Konate in as a backup center. Lynch (260 pounds), Curry (235) and Murphy (240), a sophomore forward, have a weight advantage against most players at their position. Six different players have totaled 25 dunks this season, including nine combined from Lynch and Coffey.
Trying to build chemistry with five newcomers isn’t easy. Last season, the Gophers took a trip to Spain, but that didn’t do much to bring them closer. Players on this team appear to genuinely like each other and are happy to see individuals succeed. The Gophers share the ball. They rank fourth in the Big Ten with 17 assists per game. That leads to a balanced attack, and four players average double figures in points.