One of the keys to winning in college basketball is staying old, but the Gophers are one of the Big Ten programs suffering the most from the growing pains of having to rely almost exclusively on underclassmen.
Richard Pitino’s top three scorers are sophomores Marcus Carr, Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur. His bench is even younger, with mostly freshmen not yet ready for major minutes.
Pitino doesn’t have a choice but to rely on youth in Wednesday’s critical game for the Gophers (13-13, 7-9 Big Ten) against No. 9 Maryland (22-5, 12-4) at Williams Arena.
“When Amir [Coffey] went pro and Eric [Curry] got hurt, we became substantially younger,” Pitino said. “The only way we could survive it is the guys who have played before had to act like elder statesman.”
Teams short on Big Ten experience are in this spot mainly as a result of what happened to their 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes.
Northwestern, Nebraska and Minnesota are at the bottom of the conference. They also are the three teams in the league getting the least production from the junior and senior classes.
The Wildcats and Cornhuskers have zero points from their 2016 and 2017 classes, because those players either transferred or are injured. The Gophers are getting 1.4 points per game from those classes, but it’s only from senior forward Michael Hurt. Two members of Minnesota’s 2017 class, guards Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris, are no longer with the program. Washington is averaging 10.7 points and 3.5 assists at Iona College in New York. Harris is averaging 10.6 points for American in Washington, D.C.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are 10 Big Ten teams getting at least a combined 19 points per game from their 2016 and 2017 classes, with Michigan (53.8), Wisconsin (41.1) and Iowa (39.9) leading the way.
Pitino accepted that Washington and Harris eventually felt they didn’t fit the program, but he expected Coffey, Curry and Hurt to be seniors helping the Gophers battle through the toughest schedule during his tenure. Instead, Coffey left after last year and signed a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. Curry suffered his third health-related setback, a season-ending knee injury. Hurt hasn’t been in the main rotation.
Suddenly, the Gophers had to rely on transfers for experience. Two of the seven newcomers were upperclass transfers — Payton Willis from Vanderbilt and Alihan Demir from Drexel — but neither of them had played in the Big Ten.
Demir, a senior forward, has taken the longest to adjust to the high-major level. Willis, a junior guard, and Carr, a transfer guard from Pittsburgh, have made a bigger impact and needed to take on leadership roles because they played in the ACC and SEC.
“They haven’t played in the Big Ten,” Pitino said. “But we needed it from somebody. Marcus has consistently been a very, very good leader. A lot of it is just the way he approaches the game.”
Carr, Willis and Kalscheur combined for 46 points in Sunday’s 83-57 victory at Northwestern that stopped Minnesota’s three-game losing streak. Their offensive outburst was a perfect complement to Oturu’s 22 points and 12 rebounds.
At this point in the season, the Gophers can’t afford to play like one of the youngest teams in the Big Ten. Northwestern is even younger — and that inexperience has led to the Wildcats’ 11-game losing streak.
The Gophers still feel like they’re playing for something. They want to get back into NCAA tournament contention, but they can’t let the missing production from the 2016 and 2017 classes hold them back.
“There aren’t technically a lot of upperclassmen,” Carr said. “You can say that we’re young, but at the same time, I say we have a good amount of experience in basketball. I don’t think it’s that much of a factor.”