Last year, the Minnesota Golden Gophers had arguably their best season this century. It’s true! They beat Wisconsin in Madison for the first time in a decade, won multiple Big Ten tournament games for the first time under Richard Pitino, and upset Louisville in the first round of the NCAA tournament for just their second tournament win since 1997 before falling to Michigan State. And unlike last time, the coach wasn’t fired after the season.
While Louisville and Michigan State both enter this season with national title aspirations, the Gophers face a different outlook. Gone to the NBA are leading scorer Amir Coffey and leading rebounder Jordan Murphy, the best recruit and player under Pitino, respectively. Three-year starter Dupree McBrayer and fan favorite Matz Stockman graduated, Brock Stull finished his eligibility, and Isaiah Washington transferred. Throw in Eric Curry’s recent injury, and just four players from the team’s 11-man rotation remain. Disaster? Not quite.
The Gophers could actually be better this year.
Here are five questions that will define the season:
1. Point guard play
There is perhaps no position more important in college basketball, and it’s no secret the point guard position has been an issue under Pitino. Coffey was better off the ball, Washington never clicked, even Nate Mason sometimes let the offense sputter while looking for his shot.
Enter Marcus Carr. The 6'2'' Toronto native started 27 games as a freshman for Pittsburgh, averaging 10 points and 4 assists on a respectable 40/33/82 shooting line, before transferring to the U and sitting out last year. He scored in double-figures fourteen times, including 22 at North Carolina, 12 at Duke, and 16 to go with 10 assists versus Syracuse.
Described as the best player on the court in practice last year, Carr will have the keys to the offense on day one – how will he perform?
2. Sophomore status
Last year’s freshman class was probably Pitino’s best, with local recruits Daniel Oturu (Cretin Derham-Hall), Gabe Kalscheur (DeLaSalle), and Jarvis Omersa (Orono).
The trio showed huge flashes: Oturu was effective on both sides of the ball, Kalscheur was a knockdown 3-point shooter, and Omersa displayed athleticism not seen since Rodney Williams was throwing down alley-oops.
They also showed they were freshmen: Oturu struggled to stay out of foul trouble, Kalscheur struggled to create shots, and Omersa struggled to get off the bench. Yet by the end of season, Oturu had nine double-doubles, Kalscheur led the team in scoring in the Louisville win, and Omersa was serviceable against Michigan State with Murphy hurt. All three will have bigger roles in year two. Will they take the next step?
3. Grad transfer unknown
Graduate transfers are now a major part of college basketball, something made abundantly clear as Matt Mooney (South Dakota) and Tariq Owens (St. John’s) started for a Texas Tech team that went all the way to the national championship.
The Gophers’ success has been mixed. Two years ago, Akeem Springs provided leadership and defensive intensity, plus a wild game winner against Indiana. Last year, Brock Stull hit back-to-back threes in the Wisconsin win and did…basically nothing else. This year’s lottery ticket is Alihan Demir, a 6'9'' forward from Drexel who played two years after junior college and slots in as the starting four.
Demir averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists a game last year, second on the team in all categories, but saw his three-point shooting, of which he put up more than two a game, drop from 36.5% to just 27%.
A scoring big is a welcome presence, but one who can stretch the floor is a game-changer. How will Demir handle the Big Ten?
4. Freshmen contributions
Four new players power another promising class: 6'9'' forward Isaiah Ihnen, a four-star recruit from Germany; 6'10'' center Sam Freeman, a three-star from Texas; 6'5'' guard Tre Williams, a three-star from Texas; and Bryan Greenlee, a 6'0'', late commit three-star from Florida.
The two to watch are Ihnen and Freeman. A top-100 national recruit, Ihnen is a long, athletic big who can run the floor and hit outside shots. Freeman is a raw big who played just two years in high school, but oozes potential. With the Curry injury, both could see minutes sooner than anticipated. Are they ready?
5. How the team gels
How the roster fits together is the most complicated, most important question. Curry’s injury means just two of the nine players who saw double-digit minutes last year will do so this year, both of whom are lowerclassmen. This doesn’t mean all is lost, but it does mean there are a lot of unknowns.
Where will the leadership come from? Is Oturu a viable first option? Will Demir fit in? How will Payton Willis, a 6'4'' Vanderbilt transfer likely starting on the wing, contribute? What about Michael Hurt? Can Pitino coach them up?
A lot of uncertainties are there heading into the season – what else is new? – but we’ll have some insight soon enough. In the first month, the Gophers have non-conference games against Oklahoma, Butler, Utah, DePaul, and Clemson. By the time they visit Iowa on Dec. 9, what this team can do will be clearer.
The season tips off November 5 against Cleveland State.