Not knowing what to expect this college basketball season during the pandemic, Gophers coach Richard Pitino made summer practice less demanding on players than in years past.
“We had an opportunity to get in the gym, go to work and get better,” Pitino said. “But with so much uncertainty about what’s down the road, you have to live for today and do it with a great attitude.”
With four players missing voluntary summer workouts, Pitino won’t see his full 2020-21 roster together until they are scheduled to all report to campus around Labor Day.
Even coming off a 15-16 record and losing All-America Daniel Oturu early to the NBA draft, the Gophers could be a Big Ten sleeper with six newcomers. But there are many unknowns with a mostly new squad going into the fall.
Here are five big questions surrounding the Gophers after summer practice:
Q What happens with the waiver process for transfers Liam Robbins and Both Gach?
A If Robbins and Gach have to sit out the 2020-21 season based on the NCAA’s current rules for nongraduate transfers, the Gophers would be projected to fall to the bottom of the Big Ten. But there’s still a good chance they can play immediately. Robbins, a 7-foot Iowa native, isn’t a slam dunk based on having family with the Gophers with his uncle (assistant coach Ed Conroy) and cousin (Hunt Conroy). Pitino is still confident Robbins will get cleared even after the NCAA asked recently for more information. The Gophers aren’t in any rush to send the waiver for Gach, a 6-7 guard from Austin, Minn. The Utah transfer should be a lock to be eligible right away, transferring closer to home.
Q Can the Gophers replace Oturu’s inside presence after his memorable sophomore year?
A Sorry, folks. There is no replacing Oturu, who could be the first Gopher drafted since 2004. The 6-10 Woodbury native was the only Division I player to average 20 points, 11 rebounds, shoot 50% from the field and average two blocks in a season. The U could replace parts of Oturu’s production with different players. Rim protection could come from Robbins, who ranked fifth nationally with 2.9 blocks per game. Western Michigan grad transfer Brandon Johnson, who recently joined the team, will be asked to share the scoring load inside. Rebounding could be where they miss Oturu the most.
Q What is the next step for returning backcourt starters Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur?
A All indications from summer practices were that Kalscheur made the biggest impression with his steadiness. His decline in three-point shooting from 41% as a freshman to 34% as a sophomore was surprising. It sounds like the former DeLaSalle standout looks even more consistent from three, which is scary considering he tied the school record with eight triples in the home finale vs. Nebraska. Word is he’s gotten stronger with his ability to create and get separation off the dribble. Carr stayed home in Toronto to prepare for the NBA draft before withdrawing his name. He appears to be in the best shape of his career and is determined to have a breakout season, dedicating it to his older brother, who suffered a season-ending injury playing professionally.
Q Are sophomores Tre’ Williams, Isaiah Ihnen and Sam Freeman ready for bigger contributions?
A Pitino hopes so. Ihnen was showing the most progress at the end of his freshman year, but he suffered a setback this summer, missing a chunk of the time sidelined after having his tonsils removed. Williams should be the most ready to contribute after playing in all 31 games last season, including five starts. Freeman’s confidence is growing to match his physical presence despite little playing time as a freshman. “They all want it bad,” Pitino said. “Sam is working really hard. Tre and Isaiah, I want them to continue to improve their game and take what’s there on the court. Take advantage of the opportunities when they’re given.”
Q Which newcomers will make the biggest impact this season?
A The Gophers add arguably their most talented class of newcomers in the Pitino era, including freshmen Jamal Mashburn Jr., Martice Mitchell and David Mutaf. Mashburn is the highest-rated recruit. But transfers Johnson, Gach and Robbins will start if they’re all eligible. It sounds like Gach turned heads already with the Gophers this summer with his effort, athleticism and versatility. No wonder there have been comparisons to former Gophers guard and Los Angeles Clippers rookie Amir Coffey. “[Gach] can do a little bit of everything,” Pitino said. “He’s athletic. He’s quick. He can knock down the three. There is a lot to be excited about there.”