The outside expectations going into the 2019-20 season did not include an NCAA tournament berth for the Gophers men’s basketball team. Far from it, actually.
No publications or analysts were talking about back-to-back trips to the Big Dance being in the cards in Richard Pitino’s seventh season as Minnesota’s coach.
Too many newcomers (seven). Too inexperienced (three sophomore starters). No Amir Coffey. No Eric Curry. That’s why projections had the Gophers near the bottom of the Big Ten.
Well, it’s just past the midway point in Big Ten play. Entering Wednesday’s critical home game against Wisconsin, the Gophers (11-10, 5-6) are in ninth place after Thursday’s 59-51 loss at Illinois. But surprisingly, Pitino’s club is still in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth.
What did we learn about the Gophers through the first half of the Big Ten season? Five things stood out as the calendar flips to February — and with March a month away.
Oturu’s NBA stock soars
No Gopher has generated as much NBA buzz as Daniel Oturu since the program’s last drafted player, Kris Humphries, was picked 14th overall in 2004.
Humphries, a 6-foot-9 Hopkins High School product, led the Big Ten in points (21.7) and rebounds (10.1) as a freshman — his only college season — on a 12-18 team. Oturu has similar numbers to Humphries’ (19.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks) and is projected as high as a lottery pick.
“It’s January. The NBA draft is in June. I’m not really worried about that,” the 6-10 Oturu said recently. “I’m just trying to help my team win to get to the NCAA tournament.”
Shooting woes continue
Pitino boasted entering this season that this would be a much better three-point shooting team than last year. That wasn’t going to be too hard to accomplish, considering the Gophers shot a Big Ten-worst 31.7% from three in 2018-19.
Gabe Kalscheur and Payton Willis were among the league leaders early this season, but Kalscheur’s shooting has dropped below his freshman percentage (32.9 from 41.0) and Willis has been battling ankle and now shoulder injuries.
Nobody has been a consistent threat from long distance, which is obvious with Minnesota shooting 31.7% through 21 games — and a league-worst 27.1 in league play.
Second and third options
Oturu’s play hasn’t dropped off much against tougher competition. He’s almost a sure-fire All-Big Ten first-team selection, which would match former Gophers forward Jordan Murphy’s accomplishment last year.
Murphy and Coffey gave Pitino a solid 1-2 punch a season ago, and Oturu and Kalscheur chipped in as sidekicks. So far, Minnesota lacks consistent production outside of Oturu, especially on the road. Sophomore point guard Marcus Carr was sensational in sweeping Ohio State (56 points combined), and also in home wins vs. Clemson, Michigan and Penn State (24 points per game). But Carr is averaging 12 points on 29% shooting away from home.
Fellow starters Kalscheur (8.4), Alihan Demir (7.7) and Willis (6.0) are averaging below double figures in Big Ten play.
Pitino has leaned a ton on his starters, beginning with a tough early schedule. Carr (38.3) and Oturu (37.2) are first and second in minutes played in Big Ten games, while Kalscheur (36.2) is sixth. Willis also averages 30-plus minutes as a starter.
Not developing the bench has turned out to bite the Gophers. Freshman Tre’ Williams (3.5 points) and sophomore Jarvis Omersa (2.2) have showed potential in a couple games, but the Gophers average the fewest bench points per game (6.8) in the Big Ten, well behind the next-closest teams, Iowa (16.5) and Wisconsin (16.7) through Thursday’s games.
Find an identity
It’s at the point in the season when a team’s identity or lack thereof becomes clear.
Early in conference play, the Gophers dominated opponents on the glass. They were plus-5.3 in rebounding margin after seven Big Ten games, trailing only Michigan State and Indiana. But Minnesota has been outrebounded in four straight games since (a 1-3 record in that span) while losing the battle on the boards by minus-7.3.
Oturu leads the Big Ten in rebounding, but he hasn’t reached double figures in boards in four games. If rebounding is still to be a strength, the Gophers need to help Oturu in that area moving forward.