If the Gophers want to prove last season’s eight-win debacle was a fluke, it all starts with their first game in front of fans Thursday night against Bemidji State.
Exhibition games are generally dismissed as glorified scrimmages. But fans will surely be expecting to see highly-touted freshman Amir Coffey show glimpses of his potential, to see what Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason worked on in the offseason, to see what type of impact transfers Reggie Lynch and Akeem Springs might make this year.
Will there be significant improvements for the Gophers in Year 4 under Richard Pitino? We won’t find out from one game that doesn’t count Thursday, but it’ll be a chance to get to know this team better.
Here are the five things to watch in Thursday’s exhibition game against Bemidji State:
Lynch’s minutes – Lynch will finally make his Gophers debut, but he might not be ready to provide the dominant inside presence Pitino needs. Not yet anyway. The 6-foot-10, 260-pound junior should start at center after being fully cleared to play. He had six points in 15 minutes in Saturday’s closed scrimmage against DePaul. But Lynch’s six fouls and three turnovers in limited action are signs of rust. After all, his last official game was in March 2015 in an NIT loss with Illinois State.
Springs starter or sixth man? – An unexpected storyline with Springs surfaced last week when his tweet about time in Minnesota being cut short resulted in Pitino having to address what turned out to be a “non-issue.” But Springs clearly didn’t think he would come off the bench as a graduate transfer. So it’ll be interesting to see what his role is Thursday. Springs had 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting from three-point range off the bench against DePaul. So does it really matter if he starts or not?
Freshmen roles – We know Coffey will get major minutes. But how are the Gophers going to use him? A three-guard lineup with Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer puts him mostly off the ball. But he is the team’s best passer. Eric Curry is probably the biggest surprise of the fall. The 6-9, 235-pound Memphis native is emerging as a reliable low-post scorer and rebounder. He’s too talented not to see the floor pretty often. But will he play backup center or power forward? Rochester native Michael Hurt’s three-point shooting could be a big boost, but can the Gophers use him at small forward and power forward with Davonte Fitzgerald's ACL injury?
High motor Murphy – When Murphy played aggressively he racked up some big games last season. He had 24 points and 10 rebounds against Clemson. He had 19 points and 17 rebounds against South Dakota. He had 18 rebounds against Chicago State. All of those games were with him coming off the bench in nonconference play. He didn’t start the first 11 games last year. Now the bouncy 6-7 sophomore is expected to be a leader. So can Murphy play with a high motor consistently?
Rebounding improved? – Murphy ranked fifth in the Big Ten in rebounding last season with 8.0 per game, but the Gophers still ranked 12th in the conference in rebounding margin (minus-3.3). Part of the problem was everyone else on the team averaged fewer than four rebounds, including starting forward Joey King (3.8). That could change with the addition of Lynch, Curry and Springs. But the Gophers only outrebounded DePaul 37-33 on Saturday, allowing 11 offensive rebounds.