After coach Richard Pitino suffered through a stretch of six losses in seven games last February, many Gophers basketball fans thought it would take a miracle to revive their NCAA tournament aspirations.
Nope. It wasn’t divine intervention.
It was basically just a future pro taking over: Amir Coffey.
A year later, the Gophers (12-12, 6-8 Big Ten) are again in familiar territory in February. Their NCAA tournament chances appear thin.
What Pitino needs now, with no time to spare, is a player who can hoist this team on his back for a stirring stretch run, starting Wednesday, at home against Indiana.
With Coffey gone to the NBA, do the Gophers have that go-to guy? The answer is yes, but it’s not their best player, standout center Daniel Oturu.
The Gophers’ fate seems tied to point guard Marcus Carr’s consistency more than anyone else.
“There are times when Marcus Carr carries us offensively,” junior Payton Willis said. “We need to have balance with the guys on the perimeter, but we also need Marcus to do some of those same things as well.”
Records don’t lie. Minnesota is 3-8 this season when Carr scores 12 points or fewer, including 0-5 in true road games.
The 6-2 sophomore from Toronto had just 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting Sunday when the Gophers blew a late lead in a 58-55 home loss against Iowa.
“We’re trying to make a run at the end here,” Carr said. “We have to be more poised, more composed in those situations. We’ve been in many close games now; we have to do a better job of executing down the stretch.”
February wasn’t kind to the Gophers last season, when they lost four straight games before beating Indiana at home 84-63. Two more close losses followed before Minnesota’s Coffey turned boiling hot.
Over a five-game span, the 6-8 guard averaged 25.8 points to lead the Gophers to a 4-1 record, basically locking up an NCAA tourney at-large bid. He entered that stretch averaging 14.7 points per game.
“They had some must-win games — and I think Amir kind of took over and the role players contributed,” Willis said. “I think that’s what’s going to have to happen this year.”
Many questioned Coffey’s decision to forgo his senior year after he went undrafted, but the former Hopkins star is in a better spot than most players who were drafted in the second round.
He has a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, who have moved him up from the G League to play in four NBA games this season.
“We would be much better as a program if Amir Coffey were still here,” Pitino said Tuesday. “He’s played some minutes [for the Clippers] that look great. He seems to be getting better, stronger. That’s an opportunity those kids can choose, and I’m not critical of it.”
Why is Carr the best candidate to simulate Coffey’s impact?
The same reason why it wasn’t necessarily the play of All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy that changed the course of the season last year. Yes, Oturu, like Murphy previously, needs to be a force inside.
But as the floor leader with the ball in his hands, Carr can impact the game more often than a big man with the Gophers’ NCAA tournament contention at stake, just like Coffey.
Carr is averaging 15.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.9 rebounds but needs to be more efficient. He’s shooting just 36.9% from the field.
Carr’s capable of eye-opening scoring outbursts with three games of 27 points or more, including a career-high 35 to upset Ohio State on Dec. 15.
“He’s a terrific player,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Your only hope is to really wall him off and be effective in how you’re playing him off ball screens. If he’s consistently getting downhill, he’s going to destroy your defense all by himself.”
Carr plays almost the entire game, too.
When Coffey was scorching hot during those critical five games last year, he played all but two minutes that whole stretch. Carr leads the Big Ten in minutes played at 38.6.
“He doesn’t look really tired out there,” Pitino said. “He’s a sophomore. He’s going to make mistakes.
“Nobody’s perfect, but he’s doing a lot of good, too.”