I had Richard Pitino Jr. on the ropes heading into last year. So did most of the college basketball world. The Gophers had won just 16 conference games over his first three seasons and were never close to being worthy of an NCAA bid. It seemed likely that the Gophers would miss the Dance again and they’d move in another direction.
That didn’t happen, though. They lost but one non conference game, falling to a very good Florida State team. They lost a heartbreaking OT game at home versus MSU, which was part of a 3-6 start in conference play. Yet, unlike other years, this Minnesota team didn’t crumble. Instead, they went 8-1 down the back half of the Big Ten and finished at 11-7 in the league, their best conference mark since the 96-97 Gophers won the league at 16-2. Sure, a BTT semifinal loss to Michigan and a first round NCAA defeat to Middle Tennessee State took some of the shine off that accomplishment, but not all that much. Minnesota got a lot done in putting things on much firmer ground than they’d been.
Akeem Springs – Springs was a 6’3″ grad transfer guard who filled an important role as a perimeter shooter and energy guy, primarily off the Gopher bench. He scored 9.5 ppg, so that solid contribution needs to be replaced.
Ahmad Gilbert – Gilbert only played in 15 games and thus his decision to depart wasn’t a shocker, given that it didn’t appear likely that he’d be in position to earn an expanded role anytime soon.
Nate Mason – Mason is the leader of this team, no question. The 6’2″ senior from Georgia had an inconsistent year shooting the ball, but when he was good he was VERY good and so was his team. Mason led Minnesota in scoring at 15.2ppg and in assists as well (and was well over a 2.5/1 A/TO ratio as a floor leader). Mason’s also a pretty solid defensive player. He shot 36% from deep and 38% overall, and is capable of raising those numbers a bit. He’s also a guy who can get to the rim and draw contact, as he averaged almost 4.6 FTA per game. The only troubling thing is that he’s had a tendency to go into slumps. Minnesota would be better off with a more consistent Nate Mason, not the peaks and valleys guy we saw last season. If he can do that, he’s as good as any point guard in the league as an overall impact player.
Amir Coffey – Coffey is the guy on this roster that I think could take a big step forward. He’s 6’8″, long, reasonably athletic and highly skilled. He averaged 12.2ppg on 45/33% shooting but I think he can improve those numbers as a sophomore. He also averaged 3.8rpg and was second on the team in assists, averaging better than 3 per game. His combination of skills, size and savvy doesn’t come around all that often. I think with improved strength and the experience of last season under his belt, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him move toward some All Big Ten type recognition.
Jordan Murphy – Remember Murphy having to slug it out against 5 men as a freshman, with his 6’6″ 230lbs body? The fact that he did it reasonably well was impressive but it was obvious he would be even more effective going against guys his size as a 4, and that’s exactly what happened. Murphy posted averages of 11.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg, quietly putting up one of the better years for a post player in the entire league. Murphy draws a lot of contact and would do well to improve his free throw shooting from last season’s 61% but overall expect him to be a problem for opponents once again, particularly on the glass.
Dupree McBrayer – McBrayer is a 6’4″ junior who has now settled into Big Ten level basketball and emerged as a solid tag team partner for Mason in the Gopher backcourt. He averaged 11.1 ppg and did it while markedly improving as a shooter (45/42%), though he’s also very effective in using his quickness to get to the basket and finish. He’s also a solid defender, with good speed and length on the wing.
Reggie Lynch – The Illinois State transfer became eligible last season and, with all due respect to the guys listed above, might have been as responsible for the Gopher turnaround as any one player on the roster. The 6’9′ Lynch gave Minnesota a legitimate 5 man, a guy they could play for starter’s minutes and allow him to impact the game in all areas. He was a decent scorer and rebounder, but his biggest impact by far came as a rim protector. His 114 blocked shots led the Big Ten and his per minute rate was staggering (he played 23 mpg). Minnesota’s guards could funnel offensive players to Lynch and trust in him to eliminate them at the basket. His biggest issue is foul trouble. When he stays on the floor, Lynch is a big time factor.
Eric Curry – Curry is a 6’8″ sophomore with a 6’10” wingspan and that size and length, combined with good athleticism, allowed him to work his way into a regular rotation role. He averaged 5.5 ppg and 5.2 rpg, an impressive number for a guy who played less than 20 mpg. The next steps for him will involve improved strength and a more reliable jumper if he’s looking to take a step forward on offense.
Bakary Konate – Konate is a 6’11” senior who’s never been able to sufficiently polish his rough edges enough to become an impact starter at the Big Ten level, but as a backup to Lynch, he fits well. He averaged just under 10 mpg and while he’s never been an effective offensive player, he can rebound (2.8 per game in those limited minutes) and defend well. In that kind of limited but important role, he’s a positive.
Michael Hurt – Hurt is a 6’8″ sophomore who played a limited role as a freshman. They think he could develop into a stretch 4 in time with decent ball skills but it remains to be seen if he can increase his playing time this season.
Gaston Diedhiou – Diedhiou is a 6’10 senior center who saw his role fall off a cliff with the addition of Lynch and Curry to the roster. Unless injuries hit this team hard, it’s difficult to imagine much changing for him.
Davonte Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald is a 6’8″ transfer from Texas A&M. He was supposed to play last year after sitting out the 15-16 season but missed last year due to an ACL. Before that he was expected to play a significant role for the Gophers and he may still find his way into regular minutes if he can stay healthy. He’s added good strength and has bulked up to about 220lbs, and they see him as being capable of playing both the 4 and the 3.
Isaiah Washington – A highly regarded point guard from out of NY, Washington is an aggressive player who looks set to be the heir to the starting point guard spot as a sophomore. For now, he’ll backup Nate Mason and perhaps even play alongside him at times, allowing Mason to move off the ball. Washington is a tough, high energy guy who may struggle some with decisions early on, but he’s going to play and probably a fair amount.
Jamir Harris – Harris is a 6’1″ guard who is strictly an off the ball guy as a shooter. They also like his strength and toughness and he’ll probably be a guy who combines with Washington down the line, but minutes may be limited this season unless the team finds it really needs another perimeter threat in the rotation.
There’s a lot to like with this team. The addition of guys like Lynch, Coffey and Curry made a huge difference. Minnesota emerged as a very good defensive team and had enough on the offensive end to win with. This is a team which now has the experience, athleticism, size and depth to hang with just about anybody in the sport at this level.
I don’t know if they can really push Michigan State for a Big Ten title but of anybody in the conference, they seem the best equipped to do so. A big key will be if guys like Mason and Coffey can gain a little more shooting consistency and if Lynch can avoid foul trouble more often.