When a men’s basketball program reaches the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years — and wins on that stage for the first time in six — that usually looks like a team on the rise.
But entering Tuesday’s season opener against Cleveland State, the Gophers face more skeptics than believers on whether they can sustain that success this year.
Minnesota hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game in back-to-back seasons for 30 years. It hasn’t even reached the tournament in consecutive years for a decade.
The doubters over this team’s chances have their ammo. There’s no all-time leading rebounder like Jordan Murphy or high-scoring guard like Amir Coffey walking through the Barn doors. Murphy graduated, and Coffey left early for the NBA.
“I don’t see Minnesota being anything other than a battle all year to try get to the middle section of the Big Ten,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich said.
Injuries have held coach Richard Pitino’s teams back from reaching their potential in the past, and these Gophers already have suffered setbacks. Versatile big man Eric Curry is out for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament, and top recruit Isaiah Ihnen has a wrist injury.
Beyond those setbacks, the Gophers were going to be relatively young and unproven anyway with eight freshmen and sophomores combined on their roster, including two starters.
All that explains why most preseason projections have the Gophers near the bottom of the Big Ten. Pitino could care less, though. He doesn’t believe in bulletin-board material, but his team’s goal remains the same: NCAA tournament or bust.
“We’re not just going to wave the white flag and say, ‘We’re young and starting over,’ ” Pitino said. “We’re in Year 7 in this. We want to get back to the NCAA tournament. We want to compete at the top of the Big Ten. We’ve got the talent to do it.”
The Gophers return starters Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur and veteran reserve Michael Hurt from a 22-victory team that lost to Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Transfers Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Alihan Demir are newcomers who will start. Freshmen Tre’ Williams, Bryan Greenlee, Sam Freeman and Ihnen (if healthy) have the potential to help off the bench.
Demir, a graduate transfer from Drexel, said he wouldn’t have joined this program if he thought they weren’t good enough to go dancing again.
“After visiting Kansas State and here, talking to [Pitino] and his staff, I thought this was the right fit,” Demir said. “They had a huge opening in my spot, and I just wanted to get exposure and win.”
Pitino’s previous two NCAA tournament teams also got older with transfers — Akeem Springs and Reggie Lynch in 2017, Matz Stockman and Brock Stull last season. Those teams had returning upperclassmen starters, too, with Nate Mason two years ago, and Coffey, Murphy and Dupree McBrayer last season.
Now Pitino’s top returning players are sophomores, Oturu and Kalscheur, who have a chip on their shoulders. They felt snubbed not getting all-league freshman honors after leading their Big Ten peers in several categories last season.
“We just want to get back to the NCAA tournament and put ourselves in the position where we can make a run,” Oturu said. “Me and Gabe are ready to take that next step.”
But how can this team replace Coffey, who played as well as anyone in the league down the stretch last season?
The Hopkins High School product was the first Gophers player to post back-to-back 30-point games since 2005. And it came at just the right time, when Pitino admitted feeling nervous about his job status, after the Gophers dropped six of seven games in February. Four victories in five games, including beating Purdue twice, then helped the Gophers earn their second NCAA bid in three years — and Pitino later earned a two-year contract extension through 2023-24.
Excitement was at its peak for Pitino’s Gophers when Minnesota fans flocked to Des Moines to see their team upset Louisville for just only program’s second NCAA tournament victory since reaching the 1997 Final Four.
Some fans are still upset Coffey left a year early, thinking what the Gophers could have been with him this season. He signed a two-way contract with the Los Angeles Clippers after going undrafted.
“I support Amir, I really do,” Pitino said. “He’s got an opportunity to make good money. And I think looking back, none of us really knew. But looking back, he made the right decision.”
Not having a marquee player, dealing with injuries again and having a younger roster makes it easy to bet against the Gophers entering this season, but even Coffey has faith his program can get back to the NCAA tournament without him.
“Those guys know what they have to do,” Coffey said. “They have [Oturu and Kalscheur] from last season, who will step into leadership roles and teach the young guys the ropes. The transfers sitting out were also pretty talented, Marcus Carr and Payton. I think they’ll be a solid team this upcoming year.”