Richard Pitino wanted the basketball in Amir Coffey’s hands for a chance to win the game.
The fourth-year Gophers coach called for his freshman to get a last-second shot on a ball screen. That screen never came.
With the play breaking down, Coffey showed his selflessness by passing to Akeem Springs, who eventually put back his own missed jumper with 3.2 seconds left for a 75-74 win against Indiana on Wednesday night at Williams Arena.
Coffey’s impact this season should not be measured with scoring totals alone. Although he ranks second on the team in points and high in other major categories, Coffey doesn’t always take the last shot or take over the game. But the 19-year-old from Hopkins is learning to be consistently aggressive and growing into a player who could thrive in go-to moments like the one that presented itself against the Hoosiers.
“I think I’ve been doing pretty well,” Coffey said Tuesday at the U’s athletic complex. “I’ve been scoring, getting assists, rebounding a little bit and trying to fill the stat sheet. I have the green light from my coaches. They’re going to let me make plays, bring the ball up the court, so I feel comfortable.”
The 6-foot-8 former Minnesota Mr. Basketball picks his moments to dominate and does what is needed to help the Gophers (19-7, 7-6 Big Ten) solidify their NCAA tournament hopes with five regular-season games left.
“We’ve exceeded people’s expectations,” said Coffey, who had his team-best seventh consecutive double-figure scoring game Wednesday. “I feel like we kind of got a lot of our fans back and more people believing in us.”
Even with Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy playing at All-Big Ten levels during the current four-game win streak, the Gophers would not be in this position without Coffey, Springs, Reggie Lynch and Eric Curry upgrading the talent from last season’s 8-23 squad.
Leading that group of newcomers is Coffey. Going into Sunday’s game against Michigan, the lefthander is among the Big Ten’s top four freshmen in points (12.8), assists (3.5), assists-to-turnover ratio (plus-1.8), steals (1.2), minutes played (36.9) and three-point shooting percentage (43.2) in conference play.
“He makes big shots,” Pitino said. “He’s just got that will. He’s a competitor. That’s why I wanted to run the play for him. It was a breakdown in the end. But he’s going to be a special, special player.”
Two days after Coffey and Curry moved in as roommates on campus last June, the Gophers met to discuss their goals for the season before summer workouts.
“Making the NCAA tournament, trying to win the Big Ten and just letting everyone know we meant business,” Coffey said. “Everybody right off the bat was working hard getting in the gym, whether that was with Coach [Pitino] at practice or in the gym with [strength coach] Shaun Brown.”
After leading Hopkins to a Class 4A state title as a senior last March, Coffey needed a month to recover from some nagging injuries. He had a lingering ligament sprain around his big toe and a bruised tailbone after falling in the state tournament quarterfinals.
Once on campus, Coffey worked to make his body stronger and tougher. Brown, who worked with Pitino’s father at Kentucky and with the Boston Celtics, created a weightlifting and diet plan for Coffey and Curry to gain weight and build strength.
Coffey gained 12 pounds in the first two weeks, and eventually went from 180 to nearly 200 pounds. Curry went from 219 to 235.
“Shaun Brown got me on a food plan that had me eating three big meals a day,” Coffey said. “On top of that, I was drinking smoothies and protein shakes and snacking a lot. We didn’t eat like that in high school.”
Hopkins coach Ken Novak wondered whether Coffey could compete physically in the rugged Big Ten.
“I always try to lower expectations a little bit, especially if kids go to the University of Minnesota,” Novak said. “People expect so much. They’ve got him up almost 20 pounds since when he played with me. That’s huge. You can really see the difference physically.”
Probably not since Kris Humphries, also from Hopkins, came to the program as a McDonald’s All-America in 2003-04 had a local recruit’s debut been so highly anticipated.
Following in the Gophers footsteps of his father, Richard, made Coffey more excited than nervous to play in front of the home crowd on Nov. 11. He remembers his first assist in the opening 30 seconds against Louisiana-Lafayette more than his first basket.
“I definitely was waiting for that first shot to go in,” he said. “I was just trying to get myself going. I started off with an assist to [Murphy for a dunk]. I remembered that for a long time.”
Before Coffey, Humphries was the last Gophers freshman to score in double figures in his first six games and have a 30-point game. Coffey averaged a team-best 15.8 points through six games, which included a 30-point outburst against St. John’s at the Barn.
“Coach Pitino and the coaching staff always stress to be aggressive and make plays,” Coffey said. “That doesn’t always mean score. It could mean making plays driving and finding other people, kind of making the defense choose. I guess it was just my night. It was an up-and-down game. I like to play that way. It was high-scoring. We were down 22-9. I was just looking around at guys. We were like, ‘Not this year.’ We got to win this game.”
Around campus after the St. John’s game, Coffey said people treated him a bit differently. He was getting stopped more often by fellow students. Instagram followers were commenting about him being “NBA-bound.”
“I’m a humble person,” he said, with the hood of his black Gophers sweatshirt pulled over his wild, twisty locks. “The whole coaching staff knows that about me. I’m not the type of guy to let that go to my head.”
Even after Coffey missed a game with turf toe and went through a five-game slump in nonconference play, his confidence remained strong as the Big Ten season opened. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo praised Coffey after Minnesota’s 75-74 overtime loss Dec. 27 against the Spartans.
“I knew how good he was,” Izzo said of Coffey, who had 10 of his 17 points in the first half.
But Coffey took the loss hard, especially since he missed a potential game-winning floater at the end of regulation. He watched the video over and over, trying to see what he could’ve done better.
“I was frustrated with myself,” he said. “But [Pitino] always tells us not to get too high or too low. That’s something he stresses to us every day.”
That was the team’s mantra when they won three straight games, eventually earning the program’s first Top 25 ranking in four years after a Jan. 8 victory against Ohio State.
But it was an emotional time for Coffey. His sister, Nia, a senior star for Northwestern, watched him play for the first time with the Gophers when the U was in Evanston, Ill.
Just before that trip, Coffey found out his grandmother had died in Aurora, N.C. They were close. His father missed the Northwestern game to make funeral arrangements.
“She was struggling and in pain,” Coffey said. “But it’s always hard when it actually happens. I know she went to heaven and she’s looking over me and my family now.”
Following the Gophers’ fifth straight loss on Jan. 28, Coffey didn’t recognize the frustration he felt. “I never lost that many games in a row,” he said. “Not even at an early age. That was tough.”
To relax, Coffey takes Chance, an Italian greyhound who mostly lives with Richard, for walks around Lake Calhoun. When he isn’t taking in a movie — usually an action flick or comedy — Coffey spends free time watching college hoops, especially other top freshmen such as Washington’s Markelle Fultz, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges.
“They were all in the Jordan Brand Classic with me,” he said. “I’ve been playing with these guys for a while. … It’s motivating.”
A players-only meeting before the Illinois game was a turning point. Coffey listened to teammates talk about the little things that needed be done to win close games.
They bounced back with a Feb. 4 win in Champaign, Ill., the first of four straight victories.
“We’re going into every game the rest of the season with the mind-set like we have to win this game to finish out the conference strong and get a good seed for the Big Ten tournament and go into March with an NCAA tournament [bid],” Coffey said.
Coffey brought the ball up the court in high school. He’s spent most of his time at either shooting guard or small forward this year, but he’s helping Mason handle the ball more, putting more pressure on defenses.
Pitino was asked on his radio show a month ago if Coffey could ever play point guard. “He’s [already] doing a lot of facilitating,” Pitino said. “He is playing some point as well in certain situations. It’s semantics there. He’s put in positions to make plays.”
Playing a certain position was never a goal for Coffey. He said he wants to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Few players in the conference are as versatile as Coffey, who can shoot, dunk, defend, rebound and pass. His father wants him to “take more risks” offensively.
Coffey has had some uneven halves in the Big Ten. He went scoreless Wednesday against Indiana in the first half, but he had 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the second.
“He’s pretty selective in the shots he takes,” Richard Coffey said. “He can find a way to get more shots up and just be a little more of a risk-taker. I think he’s learning that. The great thing about Amir’s situation is no one is in a hurry for things to happen. He has time.
“I do think they have done somewhat of a better job of getting the ball in his hands more. I’m really excited to see how he and the team finish the year.”
Top local high school prospects are following Coffey’s progression, too.
“Watching Amir Coffey play at a high level at the U had a big impact on my decision,” said Cretin-Derham Hall four-star junior center Daniel Oturu, who beamed about a chat he had with Coffey before committing to the Gophers last month.
Coffey might defer to teammates for shots at times, but he understands how important his success is to keeping more top players from leaving the state. It’s a responsibility he’s willing to take on.
“I don’t really feel pressure,” Coffey said. “I know what I can do. I know my abilities on the court, and I believe in myself. So it’s really just competing, playing hard and showing people what I can do. Hopefully, that starts a trend with other homegrown kids to commit here. There’s a lot of talent in Minnesota. Hopefully homegrown kids can start believing in the University of Minnesota and believe that we can start something here.”