Richard Pitino noticed something different from last season when he looked around the Athletes Village court for the Gophers men’s basketball team’s first practice of the 2018-19 season Tuesday.
Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer are back healthy.
After being hampered by injuries to end a disappointing 15-17 campaign in March, the Gophers’ most versatile offensive players are showing they are ready to be leaders in the backcourt this year.
“Those guys have played a lot of minutes in the Big Ten and were part of a very good team,” Pitino said Tuesday. “Having those guys out there is extremely important, and they both look good. That spring and summer [resting] was good for them.”
Coffey, a 6-8 junior, was fully cleared in August after missing 14 games because of a shoulder injury last season. The Hopkins native had some “wow” moments in practice that flashed back to his breakout freshman year on the Gophers’ NCAA tournament team in 2017.
One of the highlights of Tuesday’s scrimmage was Coffey’s slash to the basket drawing multiple defenders before dropping a pass off to freshman Jarvis Omersa for a two-handed slam in stride.
“He looks great,” Pitino said. “He has that look in his eye of a guy who wants to have a great year.”
McBrayer missed five games last season and struggled to be consistent because of lingering leg injuries. The 6-5 senior from New York City is now showing leadership qualities much needed with the loss of point guard and captain Nate Mason to graduation.
During a communication drill Tuesday, McBrayer was the most vocal. He screamed for teammates to box out and watch for screens. There wasn’t a defensive drill where he lacked energy.
Over the weekend, the Gophers went through a boot camp of sorts, with ex-military personnel putting the players through several drills, including having to take their sweatshirts off while treading water.
McBrayer made sure his teammates arrived early for the 6 a.m. workout. Coffey benefited the most from the program, because it forced him to come out of his shell, Pitino said.
“Dupree has been very good across the board and very consistent,” Pitino said. “Amir is a guy who doesn’t want to do it, but it was amazing that second day [training] we put him in a leadership role. And he killed it. Guys listened to him. You can be quiet in the locker room and the dorm, but we need you to be loud on the court. When he does that it makes a great impact.”
Coffey and McBrayer showed no signs of being limited after an offseason spent recovering from injuries. However, big men Daniel Oturu and Eric Curry haven’t been fully cleared yet.
Curry was expected to return by now from knee injuries that caused him to sit out last season. But he spent the first practice riding a stationary bike and nursing a minor calf strain. The redshirt sophomore is out for two weeks, Pitino said.
Oturu looked comfortable running the floor and got cleared for some contact for the first time in a Gophers uniform. The 6-10 freshman from Cretin-Derham Hall played in part of Tuesday’s scrimmage making it clear he is progressing to being 100 percent.
The Gophers — whose practice Tuesday was witnessed by women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen, football coach P.J. Fleck and men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko — are expecting everyone to be ready to play and start the season off strong in the Nov. 6 opener against Nebraska Omaha.
“We’ve got guys in this locker room who have won a lot of games,” Pitino said. “We’ve got guys who have got a bad taste in their mouth from all of those injuries last year. I think they’re hungry. I think they’re excited.”