College basketball teams across the country are hit with significant blows to their depth each year, whether it comes from losing players to transfer, injuries or early to the draft.
For the Gophers men’s basketball team, it happened with a combination of all three things this season. The Gophers lost Isaiah Washington to transfer. They lost Eric Curry to injury. They lost Amir Coffey to the NBA.
That put Richard Pitino in a situation to rely on starters more than he ever has in his seven seasons as Minnesota’s coach. And that formula so far isn’t working, especially against stronger competition.
“When you play the schedule that we’ve played, it’s hard at times to develop,” Pitino said of the reserves for the Gophers (3-4), who host Clemson (5-2) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Monday night.
All four losses for the Gophers this year have been against high-major opponents. They’ve been outscored 55-26 in those games in bench points. Part of Pitino not relying on his bench is because of the lack of experience, with four freshmen and a sophomore. But part of it is them just not being ready to contribute much because they don’t play.
“They’ve got to get every opportunity in practice or in games to get better,” Pitino said. “It’s really, really hard to get great opportunities there, so they have to do it in practice and build trust.”
What happens if the starters don’t handle their business? Where does Pitino turn?
Point guard Marcus Carr averaged 11 points and shot 28% in the four losses, which includes nine points on 1-for-10 shooting in a loss at Butler and four points on 2-for-9 shooting in last week’s loss to DePaul.
Freshman point guard Bryan Greenlee, who was added to the 2019 recruiting class this summer, was supposed to be a backup option for Carr. But Greenlee has averaged only 2.8 minutes in six games.
Forward Alihan Demir lost his starting spot briefly to Jarvis Omersa in a Nov. 15 loss at Utah, but Pitino didn’t like that move after opening with a 16-0 deficit in Salt Lake City.
Pitino preferred Omersa coming off the bench to bring energy. The springy 6-7 sophomore had 11 points and nine rebounds in a victory vs. North Dakota.
The Gophers could benefit from giving sophomore standout Daniel Oturu some help in the frontcourt off the bench. Omersa and senior Michael Hurt have the most experience from last season, but their playing time and production have been inconsistent.
“It’s really important, because we need more depth at the frontcourt position,” said Oturu, who leads the team with averages of 17 points and 11.9 rebounds. “Just trying to stay consistent is the biggest thing.”
Freshmen Tre’ Williams and Isaiah Ihnen, former four-star recruits, also might be able to supply offensive help off the bench. Williams scored a combined 10 points on 3-for-6 shooting from three-point range in losses to Oklahoma and Utah. Ihnen, coming off a wrist injury that delayed his season debut, has also hit a couple of threes in three games.
“With Amir going pro and Eric getting hurt, those guys need to be factors,” Pitino said.
If the Gophers are going to win for the first time this season against a high-major opponent Monday night, Pitino might need more than just his starters to lead.
“If you can get [the bench] those minutes, it’s important,” Pitino said. “But the starters and the guys who play a lot have got to handle their business.”