One exhibition game surely isn’t enough of a sample size for Richard Pitino to know exactly who will be the go-to guy for the Gophers men’s basketball team this season.
The role Amir Coffey would have played had he returned to college is still up for grabs a week before the season opener next Tuesday vs. Cleveland State.
In Monday’s 73-48 exhibition victory over Southwest Minnesota State at Williams Arena, Payton Willis, Marcus Carr, Gabe Kalscheur and Daniel Oturu combined for 49 points.
Several candidates have shown the potential to take charge, but Pitino didn’t necessarily want to reveal too much before the games actually count.
“We didn’t run anything,” Pitino said. “I just wanted to go put them in space and go play. See how it looks. We’ve got Oklahoma in the second game [Nov. 9], and then at Butler [Nov. 12] and at Utah [Nov. 15], so I don’t want to show everything right now.”
The 6-foot-10 Oturu did his best impression of graduated double-double machine Jordan Murphy by dominating the middle with 12 points and 16 rebounds vs. an undersized Division II opponent from Marshall.
The Gophers also forced 22 turnovers and outscored the Mustangs 36-18 in the paint.
“It was good to be able to score a couple buckets down low,” Oturu said. “I’m just trying to be physical and post up harder [this season].”
Kalscheur and Oturu are the only returning starters from last season’s 22-14 team that lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
When Coffey finally slowed down a bit in the NCAA tournament first round vs. Louisville, Kalscheur was the game changer with a team-high 24 points on five three-pointers.
Pitino said Kalscheur was the player most Big Ten coaches talked about having to game-plan for going into this season, because of his ability to singlehandedly shift the momentum from long distance.
The former DeLaSalle standout was quiet in the first half Monday, but he scored Minnesota’s first seven points of the second half, including his first three-pointer.
After a slow start, Oturu scored five consecutive points in the first half. After muscling his way to a three-point play, the Cretin-Derham Hall product swatted his first shot and threw down his first dunk on the ensuing possession.
The experience that Oturu and Kalscheur got as freshmen could prove to be crucial with the loss of Coffey and Murphy.
They are still young, though, so Pitino won’t ask them to carry the leadership role alone.
Carr and Willis, who both sat out last season as transfers, give the Gophers two backcourt players who are battle-tested from starting games for Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, respectively.
It didn’t take long for their chemistry to carry over in games for the Gophers. Willis was named the unofficial MVP of the U’s three-game foreign tour to Italy this summer. Carr was announced as a co-captain along with senior forward Michael Hurt on Monday.
Fans were able to see how Carr and Willis (26 points and 12 assists combined) might be used as interchangeable parts to replace Coffey as the team’s floor leader. Both played point guard and off the ball.
During an 11-0 run in the first half, Willis was the spark with a three-pointer, a transition dunk and lead pass to Jarvis Omersa for the highlight of the game — an emphatic one-handed finish over a Mustangs defender.
When Pitino desperately needed wins last season to reach the NCAA tournament, Coffey carried the team on his back, but the go-to guy role appears to be a shared one this season.
“I was excited to be out there playing in front of the fans,” Willis said. “But I’m sure it will be a different feeling come Tuesday.”