The 2016-17 season couldn’t come soon enough for the Gophers, after they suffered the most losses (23) in program history and ended last season with embarrassing off-court issues that continued into the summer. The first official practice of Year 4 under Richard Pitino kicked off Friday for the Gophers, beginning a journey to prove last season was an anomaly. Preseason predictions have Pitino’s team finishing no higher than 12th in the Big Ten, one spot above last season. But six newcomers and promising returnees give Pitino much higher expectations that this will be his best season yet. Here are five Gophers basketball story lines to watch as practice opens:
1. How will freshman Amir Coffey be used? The 6-8 former Mr. Basketball from Hopkins arrives as the Gophers’ highest-rated recruit since Royce White in 2009. Pitino raved about Coffey’s passing and playmaking ability in summer practices. But where will he play? He has small forward size but the perimeter skills of a guard. Gaining weight (only 190 pounds) is key for him to adjust physically to the college game quickly. Allowing Coffey to start, handle the ball and help initiate the offense once he gets comfortable in Pitino’s system is a likely scenario.
2. Reggie Lynch’s health. The Gophers sorely missed an inside presence like Lynch last season. The 6-10, 260-pound Illinois State transfer finally appeared ready to play after sitting out. The Edina native recovered from shoulder surgery and was reinstated after being suspended after an arrest on suspicion of sexual assault. No charges were filed. But Lynch is sidelined again until the end of October after recent left-knee surgery. Will Lynch be healthy enough to be the starting center right away? Junior Bakary Konate and freshman Eric Curry are options, but they don’t come close to matching Lynch’s shot-blocking prowess.
3. Nate Mason becoming a leader. Mason was playing at an All-Big Ten level (averaged 16.9 points and 6.3 assists in his last eight games) before being suspended the last four games for his involvement in a sex-video scandal with teammates Kevin Dorsey and Dupree McBrayer. The junior guard now has an opportunity to show whether he’s mature enough to be the leader this team needs on and off the court. The Gophers lost 17 games the past two seasons by six points or fewer, so they need Mason to be that go-to guy down the stretch.
4. Jordan Murphy’s encore. There really is no doubt who was the Gophers’ most exciting player last season. The 14-game losing streak (worst since 16 in a row in 1986-87) and late-season suspensions marred the best year for a U freshman in more than a decade. Murphy, who earned All-Big Ten freshman team honors, led the team with eight rebounds per game. His nine double-doubles were tied with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ for most in the conference, and Happ is a preseason All-America candidate as a sophomore. Murphy not only needs to expand his game but must help Minnesota make a jump to be considered an elite player.
5. Transfers impact. Pitino made it clear Lynch and Milwaukee graduate transfer Akeem Springs will play major roles. The 6-4 Springs, trying to solidify his role as the starting wing, averaged 13 points and five rebounds last year and his toughness helped Wisconsin-Milwaukee upset Minnesota and Wisconsin. After sitting out last season, former Texas A&M forward Davonte Fitzgerald could add outside shooting and versatility. But there are questions about whether Fitzgerald lost a lot of athleticism after suffering a major knee injury two years ago.