College basketball coaches always say there isn’t much to take away from scrimmages or exhibitions, but don’t listen to them.
Sure, those games don’t count on their record, but they are still a valuable evaluation tool. In the case of the 15th-ranked Gophers men’s basketball team, the four practice games — a “secret scrimmage” vs. Creighton, the maroon vs. gold intrasquad game and the two exhibition games, against Concordia (St. Paul) and Wisconsin-Green Bay — are opportunities to judge whether or not the preseason hype is justified.
Here are five takeaways leading into the first “real game” — Friday against South Carolina Upstate at Williams Arena — from the four warmups:
1. Newcomers look ready
If coach Richard Pitino had to name one reason why the Gophers made the biggest turnaround in program history last season, you can bet he would credit the newcomers. A year ago, Pitino welcomed in Reggie Lynch, Amir Coffey and Akeem Springs, who would eventually start together during the Gophers’ run to the NCAA tournament and a 16-win improvement. Newcomers Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris and Davonte Fitzgerald might not be starters this season, but their roles could be just as significant in helping the Gophers continue to play at a high level. In these four exhibition games, Washington, who is definitely a fan favorite with his flashy game, was third on the team in scoring (16.0) and assists (4.5). Harris struggled in the maroon and gold scrimmage, but he scored in double figures in the last two exhibition games. Fitzgerald shows no sign of coming off a knee injury with his ability to run and jump. He was the team’s second-leading rebounder (6.8) in exhibition.
2. Several go-to options
Remember that time when Richard Pitino said that Jordan Murphy wasn’t a good scorer? Well, that seems like longer than a year ago the way the 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior has looked in scrimmages and exhibitions this year. Murphy has shown an expanded array of moves, more confidence and better understanding of the game. Murphy, who had 24 points vs. Creighton and 22 points vs. Concordia, can take over at times with his athleticism and strength inside. He averaged 17 points and 10.8 rebounds in four games. We still haven’t seen his supposedly improved jumper. If that reveals itself in the regular season, watch out. He could be Pitino’s top scorer in 2017-18. Nate Mason’s 17.8 points led the team in exhibition play this year, and Murphy was right behind him. Amir Coffey exploded for 26 points in Sunday’s victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the sophomore averaged 12.8 in the four warmups.
3. Guards galore
One preseason college basketball annual listed the Gophers as having one of the top 10 backcourts in the nation. Mason could be the best point guard in the Big Ten. The 6-8 Coffey, who led the team with 5.5 assists in exhibition games, is one of the top NBA prospects in the conference. Dupree McBrayer was the team’s most improved player last year. Adding two top freshmen in Washington and Harris provides depth off the bench. Mason, McBrayer and Coffey started and did well sharing the ball during exhibitions. But Pitino tried several different combinations. The most intriguing is having Mason, Washington and Coffey together. Will he eventually make that switch in the starting lineup?
4. Shooter needs to emerge
Whether it was Andre Hollins, Joey King or Akeem Springs, the Gophers had at least one player who could consistently be a game-changing three-point shooter the past four seasons under Pitino. But who will that guy be this season? Mason, Coffey and Harris are the likely candidates. But none of them shot the ball that well from beyond the arc during exhibition play. Washington, who worked hard this summer on improving his shooting, was the only Gophers player to shoot over 33 percent from three in four games (42 percent). The Gophers have been among the worst three-point shooting teams in the Big Ten the last couple years, including 11th last season at 34 percent. They shot only 31 percent from long range as a team in four exhibitions.
5. Konate could be key
How much will losing sophomore big man Eric Curry hurt? So far, Fitzgerald’s knee looks healthy enough to play enough minutes to help replace Curry’s presence as a backup power forward. But Curry often played center when Lynch was in foul trouble last season. Lynch was impressive in exhibition games (12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 22 minutes), but Bakary Konate needs to fill the backup role. The 6-11 senior averaged a respectable 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in exhibitions, but his defense is far from what Curry offered. If Konate can keep from being a defensive liability, it will go a long way to making this a big year for the Gophers frontcourt.