Richard Pitino’s message in a team meeting this week was all about getting his players to believe they had enough talent left without starters Reggie Lynch and Amir Coffey to reach their goal of making the NCAA tournament.
As of Tuesday, Lynch is allowed to practice but is suspended indefinitely from playing in games while his appeals of being held responsible for sexual misconduct — including a third allegation surfacing later Tuesday — play out. Coffey has no firm timetable on a return from a right shoulder injury; he might be back in a week or two, or miss the rest of the season if surgery is required.
“Do we feel like, with what we have, we can go win some games?” Pitino said he asked his players. “Can we do what we’re still hoping to do, which is make the tournament? I believe we can. They believe we can.”
To make the tournament, nearly every player that sees the floor, including Jordan Murphy, is going to need to do more. Murphy, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer combined for 58 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists and six steals Saturday, but the Gophers still fell 75-71 at home against a shorthanded and rebuilding Indiana team.
Here’s an analysis of what Murphy, Mason and McBrayer and several of their teammates can do moving forward in order to help them win Wednesday at Northwestern — and stay competitive in the Big Ten without Lynch and Coffey.
Forget passing Tim Duncan’s double-double streak (17 in a row at Wake Forest back in 1997), the 6-7, 250-pound junior has got to be high-scoring, “High Motor Murph” now. The Gophers need Murphy to have some big offensive games by being much more aggressive and efficient scoring. Murphy is averaging 13.8 rebounds in Big Ten play, but he’s only scoring 15.8 points on 35 percent shooting. He averaged 19.9 points and shot 59 percent in nonconference games. Murphy will play some center now in a small lineup. Staying out of foul trouble is a must. He also needs to consistently get a higher release on his shot as an undersized post.
Mason has shown his toughness to bounce back from injuries (hip and ankle). He’s averaging 21.3 points and 6.3 assists in Big Ten games this season. The senior point guard is also shooting 44.8 percent from three-point range in conference play. So there’s not much more you could ask from him, except: stay healthy, make better late-game decisions and continue to be a great mentor for freshman Isaiah Washington.
McBrayer still can’t participate in a full practice because of his lingering leg injury. But he’s one of the best on the team in getting into passing lanes and forcing turnovers to create transition opportunities. Coffey did those things and was a three-point shooting threat. McBrayer needs to fill both those roles. With a 6-9 wingspan, McBrayer also has to rebound better than his 1.5 average in four Big Ten games.
Nobody is asking BK to be Lynch in the post. Asking him to block four shots a game and catch a post pass and finish consistently inside would be a stretch. But Konate does play good position defense and can be a rim protector. If he can rebound and defend without fouling, it will be a big plus. Konate’s struggles setting ball screens are infamous. Cutting out illegal screens is crucial.
Shoot, shoot, shoot: That’s what Hurt’s teammates have been telling him all season when he gets opportunities. The former Rochester John Marshall star took only one shot and went scoreless in 31 minutes Saturday replacing Coffey. He rebounds and passes well, but he has to look to score. Hurt, who averages 0.5 points in conference play, has yet to take a Big Ten three.
There was a time when Fitzgerald was considered a shooter but no longer. If the former Texas A&M transfer can become a close-to-the-basket finisher, rebounder and defensive stopper, he could get major minutes in a smaller lineup next to Murphy. He seems to be moving past last year’s knee injury. Now it’s time to find a role.
Shot selection is where Washington can make the biggest adjustment (shooting 34 percent from the field and 14 percent on three-pointers this season). “Jelly Fam” isn’t changing his game to be a pass-first guard anytime soon. So the Gophers might try him at shooting guard with Mason at the point, Pitino said Tuesday. He told Washington he could have a great Big Ten season: “I know he wants to play more. I told him, ‘You’re going to get some great opportunities.’ ”
Marcus Fuller covers
for the Star Tribune.