LAST SEASON – The only thing which saved Minnesota from a historically awful season was the presence of Rutgers. Yet, in a lot of ways, I think you could classify Minnesota’s performance as being even worse than Rutgers, mostly because we have no expectations for RU. Richard Pitino’s bunch was the only conference team to lose to RU and they were blown out in that game. Granted they were beseiged by injury and suspension problems, but even before that stuff started to accumulate it was a terrible year for the Gophers. They were 8-23 overall and just 2-16 in the Big Ten. Now, one big difference between UM and RU is that the Gophers were within single digits in 9 of their 16 defeats in the league, so they weren’t the total mismatch the Scarlet Knights typically were. Still, last season marked the third straight year Pitino missed the NCAA Tournament, and he’s had declining results in every season. With all the losing combined with a sense that his program has veered out of control in terms of off the court conduct, 2016-17 would seem to have all the makings of a make or break year for him as head coach.
THIS SEASON – Minnesota is not without some talent, so that’s the good news. They have a few young players with promise, have added some transfers with potential and put together a solid recruiting class. So, there is an opportunity for this to be an improved team, but how it all fits together remains to be seen.
Nate Mason is the clear cut main man on the team offensively. He led them in scoring at better than 13 ppg and posted close to a 3:1 assist to TO ratio, plus he’s got decent defensive potential. The main issue for him was his shooting last season, which fell off a cliff. His overall percentage had a small decline (41-39%) but he went from 39% to 30% from outside the arc. If he can recover his freshman year deep touch, he could be one of the better point guards in the conference. Minnesota needs him to be that.
Dupree McBrayer is the other returning guard with the most experience. The 6’4″ sophomore is a longer, athletic guard who could also be a solid playmaker in time, but he really struggled to shoot (33/25% last season). I would guess him to be a likely starter.
The Gophers also return another couple of sophomores in Ahmad Gilbert and Stephon Sharp. They each played limited roles last season and could again provide some depth this year.
More excitement for the Gopher backcourt turns on new additions. Minnesota added Northern Illinois grad transfer Akeem Springs to their mix. The 6’3″ senior averaged 13.2 ppg and shot decently (49/35%) while doing it, plus he grabbed better than 5 boards per game. The Gophers also add the most highly regarded recruit of the Pitino era in 6’5″ Amir Coffey. The son of a former Gopher, Coffey is a guy with the potential to be a foundational player for this program. He’s a versatile player who should get a chance for significant minutes immediately, likely as a starter.
Inside, the big returnee is 6’6″ sophomore Jordan Murphy. I really liked his game last year, as he plays with a high motor, toughness and a real willingness to compete. He averaged 11.8ppg and 8 rpg as a freshman, often having to play against much bigger opponents. He could stand to extend his range (just 22% from three) and improve his free throw shooting, but he’s a good young player to build around.
Other returnees offer some depth for Pitino to work with. Bakary Konate and Gaston Diedhiou are two junior big men who were seen as raw projects when they arrived in Minneapolis and haven’t really developed much beyond that. Konate did average 4.8ppg and 5.1 rpg but that was a function of his getting minutes no one else could claim as much as anything else.
The big story over the offseason for Minnesota is if 6’9″ 260lbs junior Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch will be on the team. Lynch was arrested but released on an assault charge recently. No charges have been filed yet, but the possibility remains, and he has not yet been reinstated to the Gopher roster. Lynch isn’t a superstar in waiting but he’s clearly superior to any other option Minnesota has at the 5, particularly on defense where he averaged nearly 3 blocks per game in his last season at ISU. He’s a respectable scorer and rebounder as well. With him, Minnesota’s interior play could take a step back up. Without him, that’s much tougher to get done. The Gophers also added a pair of forwards in 6’8″ Eric Curry and 6’7″ Michael Hurt. Curry is seen as more of an athletic power forward while Hurt is more of a 3/4 combo guy. I would expect both are capable of earning some role in Minnesota’s rotation this year. There’s also 6’8″ Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald. The Gophers seem enthused about him but his production in two years with the Aggies was limited.
BOTTOM LINE – This should be an improved team…the question is how much better will they be and will that be enough to save Pitino’s job? A lot is riding on the transfers, particularly Lynch and Springs. If they’re playing and effective, this team should be better and could be good enough to push a notch or two higher in the standings than I’ve got them slated for here.
The thing is, the general rule during Pitino’s time in Minneapolis is that things will go wrong. It’s hard to know what and how, but this hasn’t been a stable situation. Two of his likely starting guards were suspended last season, and Lynch still is, so you start with those knowns and go from there.
I think Minnesota probably will continue to struggle as a jumpshooting team and that caps their ceiling. You can see that Pitino is attempting to put together a roster with length and athleticism to play his preferred scrambling style of defense, but they haven’t been nearly good enough on that end to compensate for ineffective offense. I’d say 3 or 4 conference wins is a good benchmark at this point.