Amir Coffey, Eric Curry and Michael Hurt exchanged text messages and had conversations throughout their senior year of high school about changing the direction of Minnesota basketball together this season.
When they watched the losses pile up for the Gophers last season, instead of rethinking their commitment, they imagined how much their presence could be a boost.
In Thursday’s exhibition victory over Bemidji State, the three Gophers freshmen made their debut in front of fans at Williams Arena. Curry led the team in rebounds. Coffey led the team in assists. Hurt led the team in three-pointers.
“We just always kept a positive mind-set about everything,” said Curry, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds. “Coming into the season, we have a new focus. This is a totally different team. I think we’re going to do big things this year.”
Coffey, a 6-8 former Minnesota Mr. Basketball at Hopkins, arrived with the most acclaim, as a consensus top-40 recruit in the 2016 class. Known for his passing and offensive versatility, the Gophers have been surprised to see Coffey already defending at a high level.
“He’s a better defender than I thought he’d be,” coach Richard Pitino said. “I always worried physically [at 195 pounds] is he going to be ready to play. He’s pretty ready. He’s going to have to play major minutes. And he’s going to have to do a little bit of everything. It’s up to me to figure out where to put him in spots to put the defense in a bind.”
With junior Nate Mason and either sophomore Dupree McBrayer or senior Akeem Springs in the starting backcourt, Coffey likely will be the starting small forward when the team opens the season Friday night against Louisiana-Lafayette. That means he typically won’t be one of the primary ball handlers, as he was in high school. Along with his team-high five assists, he added six points and six rebounds in 33 minutes on Thursday.
“I like being on the ball and making plays,” Coffey said. “But I’ve also been working on running off screens or just working throughout the offense. That’s something I’ve been working on a lot this summer. I don’t really have a preference.”
The 6-9 Curry was a face-the-basket forward at Southwest Christian Academy in Arkansas last season. But he does most of his work in the paint with the Gophers. The Memphis native went from 215 to 235 pounds in just a few months. Weight-room work and his body naturally maturing made even his mother do a double-take.
“Over the past few months, I feel way stronger,” Curry said. “I’m able to see myself as a power guy. Usually, I wasn’t doing that. I was just going around everybody. But I can see myself powering through guys now.”
Curry was the best player on the floor at times during the exhibition, getting a double-double in 27 minutes off the bench. He shot 6-for-8 from the field and 5-for-6 on free throws.
“Plays hard. He’s got length,” Pitino said Thursday. “He can play (power forward) or (center). Obviously, he’s got really, really good hands. He’s going to be a really, really good player.”
Hurt averaged nearly a triple-double last season with 19 points, nine rebounds and eight assists at Rochester John Marshall. The Minnesota Mr. Basketball runner-up also shot 43 percent from three-point range, an area where Pitino expects him to help the Gophers immediately. He scored six points on 2-for-3 shooting from beyond the arc in 17 minutes against Bemidji State.
“Mike coming in gave us the dimension that we need from him,” Pitino said. “He plays hard and he’s smart. I’m excited about all of those guys.”
Hurt’s role got more complicated after junior Davonte Fitzgerald suffered a season-ending knee injury last month. The 6-7, 200-pound Hurt and sophomore Ahmad Gilbert are working at both forwards spots in practice.
“Davonte was going to be a tremendous dual-position player for us,” Hurt said. “Now I’ve been playing a little bit of [power forward] in practice. [Gilbert] has as well. We’re both getting used to being in the post a lot more. Focusing a lot more on rebounding as well. ... Offensively, I’m able to stretch the floor out and open up the paint, because I can shoot.”
Pitino signed this recruiting class a year ago this week. It was the Gophers’ first top-30 class since 2009, and some fans saw Coffey as the savior because of his potential and pedigree as the son of former Gophers standout and NBA player Richard Coffey.
Coffey is the only freshman projected to start Friday at Williams Arena, but he isn’t putting all the pressure on himself to pull the program up from the depths of an 8-23 season of a year ago.
“I think the team has a lot of guys who can do things,” Coffey said. “But whatever Pitino wants me to do, I’m going to try to get it done and help the team win.”