College basketball teams that struggled like Richard Pitino’s Gophers did from three-point range last season weren’t supposed to get better. Not when the NCAA decided to extend the line farther out this year.
The Gophers might end up being the exception to the new rule.
Even during a 22-win NCAA tournament season last year, the Gophers were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. This 2019-20 squad might have discovered its identity after making 13 three-pointers in Tuesday night’s 85-50 opening win vs. Cleveland State in front of an announced 8,693 at Williams Arena.
Marcus Carr and Payton Willis, two of five players making their Gophers debuts, combined for 35 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds and eight three-pointers. The 13 threes were the most for the Gophers since they also had 13 against Missouri State in 2015.
“They were in a zone and were giving us that,” Pitino said. “Those guys can shoot. Payton can shoot. Gabe [Kalscheur] can shoot. Marcus can shoot. So, if you’re open you’ve got to take what the defense gives you.”
Benefiting from his teammates nailing outside shots to open up the lane, Gophers big man Daniel Oturu finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high five blocks.
The Gophers pulled away in the first half with a 19-1 run
The new men’s college three-point line is now 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches, the same distance as the international arc but still closer than the NBA.
One thing is for sure, the Gophers surely couldn’t be much worse than last season when they ranked 344th nationally in threes per game (5.3) and 300th in three-point percentage (31.7).
Pitino had the new three-point line put down in the U’s practice facility before summer workouts. The Gophers also shot from that distance in three games during a trip to Italy in August.
“We’ve been saying all preseason leading up that we’re pretty confident in our ability to shoot the ball,” Carr said. “When I attack and kick [out], and when they take shots, I really think every single one is going in.”
Surprisingly, Kalscheur, who set a school freshman record with 77 threes last season and made 41% of his attempts, wasn’t even the team’s best shooter. Willis had 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range.
The Gophers missed their first four shots of the game — all threes. The fifth time was the charm with Kalscheur getting the scoring started with a pair of long-range bombs.
The Gophers’ first shot inside the arc wasn’t until Oturu’s layup at the 14:14 mark. Cleveland State packed into a 2-3 zone early to take away the 6-10 sophomore’s post scoring, but he drilled back-to-back jumpers.
After Carr and Willis drilled back-to-back threes, Michael Hurt’s layup made it a 21-point advantage. The Gophers led 38-21 at halftime after shooting 7-for-19 from beyond the arc.
By the time Minnesota led 78-40 late in the second half, Alihan Demir became the fifth different player to make a three-pointer in the game. Demir, a 6-9 transfer from Drexel, also gave the Gophers their 13th basket from long distance.
How well Minnesota’s team continues to shoot moving forward will be something to watch, especially with the first of six games against major conference foes in nonleague play coming Saturday against Oklahoma in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“We’ll see what our identity is against these Power Five schools,” Willis said. “It’s going to be a good test for us.”