We’re witnessing a different kind of Jelly this season on the Gophers men’s basketball team.
No longer is Isaiah Washington looking for his own shot – and in spectacular fashion like his trademark jelly finger roll. What Tuesday’s 11-assist performance in the 104-76 opening victory over Nebraska Omaha showed is this version of Washington cares just as much about making his teammates look good as himself. Maybe more right now.
The sophomore guard was the first to reach 10 assists or more in a game since Nate Mason’s 11 assists against Niagara last November. Washington, a New York native and co-founder of Jelly Fam, was asked Tuesday night what changes he made this offseason after a rocky freshman year.
“I just got to know my teammates off the court more,” Washington said. “We just talked about whether the like the ball here or there, just being comfortable with them and them being comfortable with me. Just being able to trust each other.”
Junior Amir Coffey started at point guard and finished with 18 points and four assists in 23 minutes.
Washington came off the bench, but Richard Pitino trusted him to play 24 minutes in the opener, the most of any Gopher guard. He only scored four points on 2-for-5 shooting, but Washington’s double-digit assist night also included four rebounds, two steals and just two turnovers.
“The fact that we’re getting up the court might be benefitting him a little more,” Pitino said. “We played maybe a little bit too slow for him last year. Isaiah’s got the talent, but he’s got to string together the defense. I thought today he was good on both ends.”
Besides Washington’s play here are some takeaways from Tuesday night’s opening win against Omaha:
Ball movement – How good was Minnesota’s offense against Omaha? Well, hitting the century mark in points to open the season for the first time since the 1996-97 Final Four season is probably telling of just how good it was. Behind that scoring, though, was the unselfishness and ball movement of a team that really appears to have great chemistry and enjoy when each teammate scores and has success. The 28 assists on 39 field goals weren’t just impressive for a debut but for any game – period. It was tied for the fifth most assists in a game in Gopher history, most since a school-record 32 against Niagara last year. Washington led the way with 11 dimes, but six different players total had at least two assists, including All-Big Ten forward Jordan Murphy setting a career-best with five assists Tuesday night. Amir Coffey (team-high plus-31 with him on the floor) playing point guard is a big reason the ball moved so well from the get go, because he’s a naturally gifted passer and facilitator. Minnesota improved to 11-0 the last two seasons when Coffey has three or more assists in a game. If Pitino’s team embraces this part of the game, the Gophers should continue to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the Big Ten.
Center play – One of the biggest question marks going into this season was how the Gophers would replace one of the top shot blockers in program history. And also a big man who could take pressure away from Murphy to score in the post and rebound at a high rate every night. Minnesota couldn’t replace Reggie Lynch after his departure last season. Eric Curry was supposed to fill Lynch’s role this season, but he’s out at least a month after another knee surgery. Not to worry. Enter the two big rotation of Daniel Oturu and Matz Stockman. Both played their first game as Gophers on Tuesday night, and they provided an inside presence not seen in a long time (Lynch missed the last 16 games last season and Minnesota went 2-14 in that span). Oturu is the most talented freshman center to enter the program in more than a decade. He responded after a couple early mishaps (picked up a foul and got blocked in the first minute) to score 10 of his 14 points in the first half, to go with eight rebounds and a block in 24 minutes. He’s not only a low-post scoring threat, but Oturu also hit his free throws (4-for-6). Stockman was even more efficient with his time putting up nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in just 15 minutes of action. He would’ve been perfect from the field (4-for-5) if not for an errant point blank layup, but Stockman went strong with two dunks after that surprising miss up close. Overall, Minnesota might have enough depth in the middle to compete until Curry comes back. The first true test will be Monday against Utah's 7-foot center Novak Topalovic, an Idaho State transfer.
Careless turnovers – There was a stretch in the first half where Pitino was shaking his head in disgust on the sideline and fans were frustrated with how sloppy Minnesota’s offense looked. The Gophers’ two best players, Coffey and Murphy, had back-to-back turnovers, which gave Omaha a chance to stick around despite not making a shot from the field (0-for-6 to start). After a few minutes the flow and execution improved and Minnesota grabbed a double-digit lead. Murphy had four turnovers trying to put the ball on the floor a lot more than he did last season. He worked on ball handling in the offseason, but over dribbling got him into trouble. Quicker moves will alleviate that problem. Michael Hurt’s four turnovers off the bench in 16 minutes were out of character for the junior forward, but it’s something he can learn from playing with several newcomers.
Foul trouble – Imagine Oturu’s stat line if he did not almost foul out. He was two rebounds shy of a double-double at halftime, but he picked up three fouls in the second half. Being able to play most of the first half without fouling after he was called for one in the first minute was impressive. When he’s on the floor the Gophers are at their best defensively because of his shot blocking ability. He also takes pressure off Murphy to be the primary low-post scorer. Oturu, Murphy, freshman Jarvis Omersa and Hurt – the entire frontcourt rotation except for Stockman – had at least two fouls. Minnesota’s frontcourt depth is better than last season, but it drops off significantly in production if Murphy or Oturu are in foul trouble. Opponents in the future will look to attack them both early, so they need to be ready to play defense the right way.
UP NEXT: Utah at Gophers 8 p.m. Nov. 12 at Williams Arena