College basketball teams across the Big Ten and the country opened practice Monday with a chance for coaches to run instruction for the first time during the pandemic.
Not every team was ready to start. Not every player was ready, either.
The Gophers got a chance to see top transfers Liam Robbins and Both Gach for the first time. They’re still waiting for starting point guard Marcus Carr and newcomers Jamal Mashburn Jr., David Mutaf and Brandon Johnson to arrive in Minnesota.
“We’re not even close to having a full team here yet,” Pitino told the Star Tribune after his third practice Wednesday. “The biggest thing we told the guys is ‘this is totally optional. If you’re sick sitting at home and want to get back into a routine we’re here for you.’ It’s been fun. You don’t know what the future holds. But guys who are here want to get better.”
Carr, an All-Big Ten third team player last season, is still home in Toronto training. He hasn’t told Pitino when he’ll officially decide about returning to the Gophers. The junior floor leader has until Aug. 3 to withdraw from the NBA Draft. Gach, a Utah transfer, already removed his name from the early entry list.
“I don’t know what his exact [decision] day will be,” Pitino said of Carr. “I’m just keeping in contact with him and supporting him. He certainly understands he has until Aug. 3. Just letting him go through the process mentally seeing where it all stands. See if he can get as much feedback as he possibly can.”
The Gophers are optimistic Carr will be back. Johnson, Mashburn and Mutaf are expected to join the team eventually as well. But their arrival dates are unclear with everyone keeping close tabs on the virus crisis.
Pitino said Johnson, a 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Western Michigan, feels more comfortable finishing up summer classes at home in Chicago. Travel restrictions are complicating Mutaf’s trip from Turkey to the U.S. Mashburn, a Miami native, is in a state where COVID-19 numbers skyrocketed this summer.
“I just talked to [Mashburn] about the numbers there in Florida,” Pitino said. “Just stay back home until you feel safe. I’m just communicating with all of those guys on what we’re doing. It’s basketball. They certainly know what they need to do.”
Carr and Johnson are two projected starters not currently with the Gophers. Robbins and Gach are potential starters present but not sure of their immediate eligibility for the 2020-21 season.
Pitino said he will hear in the next week or so from the NCAA about Robbins’ waiver. The 7-foot Drake transfer has been arguably the most impressive player so far in practices. He’s not just a shot blocker.
“He’s skilled,” Pitino said. “He has an understanding and knack to score the basketball. He can hit threes. He’s got absolutely really good low post moves. To me, he’ll be one of the better bigs in the conference, hopefully this year.”
The U is still working on Gach’s waiver since he just arrived. The 6-7 Austin, Minn. native has a solid chance to play right away transferring closer to home. He is already showing off his athleticism and versatility.
“Both [pronounced Booth] has unbelievable work ethic,” Pitino said. “Great capacity to fight through fatigue. Can play three different positions and all over the court. He’s versatile. He can get to the basket. He can knock down a three and play in ball screens.”
All Gophers basketball players and staff on campus have been tested for coronavirus and cleared so far. Practices are limited to smaller groups. Coaches have to wear masks on the court and maintain distancing. Programs are limited to eight hours a week in team activities, including four hours of individual instruction from coaches until school starts in the fall.
When Pitino’s full roster will be together is uncertain. But the Gophers are making the most out of being together right now dealing with tough times during the pandemic.
“We’re all in this together,” Pitino said. “Safety is the most important thing. We’re all trying to evolve into whatever this is and that it will become. The well being of the players, the coaching staff and everyone has been crucial and vital. But it’s also been great to get back on the court.”
-- Pitino said 6-9 redshirt senior big man Eric Curry isn't fully cleared yet coming off missing his second season-ending knee injury last year. But the Gophers are encouraged by his progress and are being patient with his rehab this summer.