Two weeks into the college basketball season, the Gophers sit at 1-3. If you’ve been more focused on Gopher football, that might be the only stat you’ve seen. Richard Pitino’s team is in last place in the Big Ten, on a three-game losing streak, and winless away from home.
But they’re actually not in bad shape.
The Gophers have played one of the nation’s toughest schedules thus far, ranking second among power-five teams in both KenPom’s strength of schedule ratings and Sports Reference’s. In Oklahoma, Butler, and Utah, a combined 11-0, it’s not inconceivable they’ve faced three of the six best teams they’ll see all year. They held second-half leads against both Oklahoma and Butler and didn’t quit after starting in a 16-0 hole to Utah, twice cutting the lead to one before falling by four.
In short – three single-digit losses to potential NCAA tournament teams in November is hardly a death sentence.
With that being said, here are the themes which have defined the season thus far:
1. Launching threes
This year’s Gophers rely on the three-point line like no team in recent memory. Through four games Minnesota has put up 117 threes, nearly 20% of last year’s total, placing them among the country’s most three-heavy teams and easily pacing the Big Ten.
Gabe Kalscheur, Marcus Carr, and Payton Willis each shoot nearly eight per game, while Daniel Oturu, Alihan Demir, Isaiah Ihnen, and Tre’ Williams – seven of the nine players who saw the court against Utah – also have range from distance.
Is it a coincidence the team shot 45% and 37% in their win and close loss, and 26% and 25% in the games that got away from them? Probably not.
2. Still struggling with free throws
It’s not all different, though. The Gophers still don’t get to the free throw line much, and when they do, still don’t make many. The team averages less than 15 attempts a night; only Carr and Oturu have more than six total attempts, and Kalscheur has zero. While there, they’re shooting just 59%, which ranks 312th nationally and seventh-worst among power-five teams.
Carr, who hit 82% his freshman year at Pitt, is at just 47% this year, while the team shot 33% against Oklahoma and 76% against Butler in back-to-back games. So it isn’t that they can’t make them, they just…haven’t.
3. Relying almost completely on starters
Tubby Smith’s five-man substitution patterns are a distant relic as the starters do basically everything, every night. Carr, Oturu, Willis, and Kalscheur average 33+ minutes and adding Demir, who has started 7 of 8 halves, starters account for nearly 90% of the scoring.
The bench hasn’t played bad, per se – Jarvis Omersa played well enough to start last game and Tre’ Williams is giving decent minutes on the wing, for example – just not a lot. Freshman center Sam Freeman hasn’t seen the court and freshman Bryan Greenlee, ostensibly the backup point guard, has logged just three minutes since the opener.
Highly-touted 6-9 freshman Isaiah Ihnen debuted against Utah after battling a wrist injury, a game the reserves scored 19 points in after just 18 total the first three games, so bench production might increase.
4. Daniel Oturu
As a freshman, Oturu was a player with a lot of potential. That potential has been realized. He’s averaging 19 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks – good for third, first, and third, respectively, among all Big Ten players – and the offense is noticeably less fluid when he sits.
The rebounding tenacity and defensive awareness on display last year are still high, while his shooting touch has not just improved but extended to the three-point line. Additionally, his passing, especially out of double-teams in the post, looks better every game.
The last Gopher drafted was Kris Humphries in 2004 – Oturu seems likely to break the streak.
5. The new backcourt
Though two weeks, Carr and Willis have bounced between excellent all-around performances and unproductive, atrocious shooting nights.
Carr is averaging 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.8 assists, making him arguably the most productive guard in the conference, but shooting just 32/29/46. He played all 40 minutes against Utah and 39 against Oklahoma, and the team struggled to do much of anything while he was in foul trouble against Butler. As he goes, essentially, so do the Gophers.
Willis, meanwhile, had a 17-point, 8-assist opening night on 6-of-9 shooting, including 5-of-8 from downtown. In the three games since, however, he’s just 10-of-33, including 5-of-23 from distance, with two assists, capped by a 1-of-7 performance against Utah before fouling out. Numbers aren’t everything and Willis is a solid player, but it remains to be seen where the norm lies.
All told, it’d be easy to write this team off. But the Gophers have maybe the Big Ten’s best big in Oturu and one of the conference’s better point guards in Carr. Kalscheur, who scored 24 against Louisville in the NCAAs last year, broke out of a 10-of-37 shooting slump to start the season with 11 points on 4-of-5 shots in the last ten minutes against Utah, while Demir, who had struggled to fit in, finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals, displaying what made him an all-conference player at Drexel.
If Kalscheur and Demir carry that forward, Willis plays closer to his potential than the country’s least efficient guard, and the underclassmen continue to grow, all of which seem at least plausible, that’s a very good starting five with a lot of talent off the bench. In other words, the formula for a solid team.