Gophers small forward Ahmad Gilbert left Saturday’s eventual 70-63 loss to Indiana early in the second half after dislocating a finger on his left hand and never returned.
Sometimes those injuries can be minor; fingers can be popped back into place. But after the game, coach Richard Pitino announced that Gilbert would have surgery on the finger on Sunday – clearly a little more serious of a scenario. The team hasn’t given any indication of how the surgery went or how long Gilbert might be out because of it.
But if the injury does force an extended absence, the Gophers will certainly feel the loss. The 6-6 freshman is averaging just 8.1 minutes a game, the second least of any scholarship player, but has played a vital role lately, particularly in the last two games.
“I think [Gilbert] just plays with a lot of activity and a lot of heart. Another thing he does well is he kind of stays in his lane as a player. He doesn’t do things he’s not capable of, which is a strength in itself.
A few of the problems Gilbert’s loss would present:
Thinner depth at small forward. Already, the 3 spot is one of the Gophers’ more concerning positions. At the moment, Gilbert is at the top of the depth chart there with some apparent practice issues leading to redshirt junior Charles Buggs getting removed from the starting lineup and occasionally sitting out some games. Without Gilbert, Pitino would have to rely more on Bugg as well as probably walk-on Stephon Sharp. “We’re going to have to start figuring some things out,” Pitino said. “That’s a tough injury because Ahmad has been playing well, and we don’t have a whole lot of depth to begin with there.”
Murphy forced out of position. In addition, the thinner depth at small forward would likely again force freshman Jordan Murphy out of position to help out. We’ve seen that experiment before, and it’s resulted in a less effective, occasionally perimeter sequestered Murphy who has a harder time getting involved in the offense and hitting the boards. That’s a big problem for the Gophers and something Pitino has said he wants to avoid if possible. “JR [Gilbert] is a really, really intense guy and his emotion really does help us in that first lineup,” Murphy said. Without him in the game, it did hurt. But it’s up to each and every one of us to pick each other up.”
New starting lineup. Pitino’s tweaked starting five – freshmen Dupree McBrayer,Gilbert and Murphy and sophomores Nate Mason and Bakary Konate – has been one of the few things that seem to be really going well for the Gophers since the coach put it in place two games ago. The combination, for whatever reason, seems to have strong chemistry, which seems to result in a reinvigorated energy that the team often lacks otherwise. Messing with that grouping – if Gilbert is out – could change the feel. “It’s going to have to change obviously because of [Gilbert],” Pitino said. “But I liked it a lot. I really liked it.”
Defensive deficiencies. In the last few weeks in particular, Pitino has lauded Gilbert’s vocal tendencies on the court, and his defensive activity. Those are two of the Gophers’ bigger deficits, so they shouldn’t be underestimated. On Saturday, Pitino said he already noticed the gap late in the second half, when he was forced to play Sharp and the team struggled to get stops. “It really screwed up our flow from a defensive standpoint and from a substitution standpoint,” Pitino said.
One day after Pitino told the media he was considering bringing in “outside voices” to talk with his team and provide some change of pace, his father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was in town and spoke to the Gophers before the game on Saturday.
Minnesota went on to contain Indiana throughout most of the first half and fall by just seven points after losing the previous two games by a combined 50.
“I think when it’s a long season, it’s always good to get other voices,” the younger Pitino said. “We’re all saying the same thing but if you hear from someone else, it’s always a good thing.”
Murphy said the elder Pitino told the players they “have to start playing like men” and the importance of toughness in games where the opponent makes the first punch.
But the son jokingly fixated on one other point of emphasis, the Gophers’ free throw percentage, which is currently ranked 11th in league play at 69.6 percent. Minnesota made just 19 of 30 (63.3 percent) on Saturday.
“He [Rick] was the one who told them about how to shoot free throws,” Pitino said with a smirk. “So it’s his fault.”