Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has talked at length about his preference to avoid playing freshman Jordan Murphy at the small forward spot, but noted on Tuesday that his hand could be forced somewhat due to the team’s most recent injury.
Freshman Ahmad Gilbert will be out three to four weeks, Pitino said on Tuesday, after having surgery on a dislocated finger on his left hand on Sunday. That leaves a hole in the starting lineup, where the 6-6 wing had started for the previous two games.
Expect junior forward Charles Buggs to fill that role tonight at Michigan (7:30 p.m. CT, BTN), but he’ll likely need some help. Pitino wants to play Murphy only at the power forward and center spots – where he’s most effective on the boards and in the offense – but there are few other options. The coach talked more about his hesitancy to play Buggs for long stretches because of his tendency for defensive miscues. Behind Buggs in the depth chart is walk- on Stephon Sharp, who Pitino played at the end of the 70-63 loss to Indiana on Saturday. The other option is going small, with Carlos Morris sliding over from the shooting guard spot, but that’s not ideal either given Michigan’s size across the board. If Pitino wants to keep a traditional center in the game, he might wind up using Murphy some at small forward just as a way to keep both him and forward Joey King in the lineup together.
“I think we’ve got to have all options open,” Pitino said. “You’re put in some issues, defensively. One of our best performances was JR [Gilbert] at [small forward] … I don’t think [Murphy] good at the 3, but we may be forced to do that if our [center] spot is not producing.”
In the meantime, Pitino said Gilbert’s focus is working on his quickness and his right hand. He’ll get his splint removed in about three weeks, Pitino added, and will have to work his way back and get game-ready from there. The injury comes at a time when things were just beginning to click with the freshman – who was averaging 2.4 points and 0.9 rebounds in 8.1 minutes a game – but Murphy said he’s handling the setback with his usual demeanor.
“He’s handling it really well, honestly,” Murphy said. “He’s not really a negative person, so it’s really hard for him to get down and stuff like that …I think we’re going to miss him just as a defensive presence. His length bothers people and just his spirit I guess. He’s a very positive person on and off the court so even just having that around the team will help, still.”
Shortly after Gilbert went down to the locker room to be treated for a dislocated finger after diving for a loose ball early in the second half of Saturday’s game, pictures of the freshman reacting with horror to his hand – screen shots from the Big Ten Network broadcast – began circulating across Twitter.
Richard Pitino saw Gilbert’s reflex out of the corner of his eye and looked away.
“‘I was like ‘Oh boy I don’t want to see this again,’” he said.
Pitino was behind the bench watching his father’s team in 2013 when Louisville guard Kevin Ware suffered a compound fracture – with the bone extruding several inches from his skin – in the Cardinals’ Elite Eight win over Duke. That injury went viral.
Gilbert’s, on the other hand, wound up being relatively minor. Pitino scolded him afterward for the violent reaction.
“Don’t react like that for a dislocated finger,” he told him. “It’s not that bad I think he just got a little freaked out by it.”
Buggs has played in each of the last two games after sitting in two of the previous three with what Pitino hinted were poor practice habits. The coach has been cryptic about his reasoning for playing or benching Buggs this season, but noted on Tuesday that he’s seen some improvement in the attitude he wants to see.
“He has been better in practice, certainly,” Pitino said. “I think he knows he has some tools that can help us, and now he’s just got to find a way to do it. We talk and talk and talk until we’re blue in the face, but now we’ve just got to do it.”
Buggs, who is averaging seven points and 3.7 rebounds, played 22 minutes against Indiana and finished with six points, a rebound and a steal. But Pitino has also bemoaned defensive miscues and turnovers by the junior, who he says will suddenly lose focus.
“He’s just got a different mentality,” Pitino said. “He recognizes it but I think he’s in his own head a lot of the time. He just thinks too much instead of just reacting and playing.”
Think Pitino’s getting it bad from the Williams Arena crowd, who have lately made their thoughts loudly known?
That’s not the only source of heckling in the young coach’s life.
Pitino told a story about taking his 4-year-old daughter, Ava, to a movie recently on his weekly radio show on 1500-a.m. Outside the theater was one of those arcade toy machines, the kind with the impossible claw you’re supposed to use to somehow leverage one of the little monsters into a hole half the size. This one contained a stuff minion. Ava wanted it.
“She was begging,” Pitino said.
Naturally, the father tried to appease his daughter and win the toy but as 98.9 percent of the population does on that rigged box, he failed.
Ava’s response? “You don’t win at anything, daddy.”
Soul-crushing, right? Pitino laughed about the moment again on Tuesday, but it sounds like the newest motivation emerging for pulling the Gophers out of this 10-losses-in-11-games rut is not having to explain another defeat to his daughter.
“She has this thing now where she understands I’m a basketball coach and she understands that people win and lose,” Pitino said. “So now [after games] she’ll be like ‘Who won?’
“ I’m like ‘Ah, stop asking that question. Please stop.’”