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Gopher men's basketball season preview: New lineup, deeper bench, more questions

Mathew Goldstein takes a deep dive into the murky waters of the college hoops season.

Projected starting lineup: Marcus Carr (15.5 PPG, 6.7 APG, 5.3 RPG), Gabe Kalscheur (11.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 34% 3PT), Both Gach (10.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.9 APG at Utah), Brandon Johnson (15.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG at Western Michigan), Liam Robbins (14.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.9 BPG at Drake)

Key bench players: Isaiah Ihnen (3.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 38% 3PT), Eric Curry (4.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG in 2018-19), Jamal Mashburn Jr. (four-star recruit)

Notable games: season opener, November 25 versus Wisconsin-Green Bay; Big Ten-ACC challenge, December 8 versus Boston College; Big Ten opener, December 15 at Illinois; border battle; December 31 at Wisconsin

Last year was a season of ups and downs for Gopher men’s basketball. They won eight Big Ten games, and Daniel Oturu became the U’s first all-American since Quincy Lewis in 1999. They also finished just 15-16 overall, and after a strong start in conference play lost nine of 13 to end the year. In the season’s final week the team put together two of its better performances in the regular season finale and first round of the Big Ten tournament only for everything to be abruptly canceled.

The commotion has hardly slowed since. The team’s two best players, Oturu and Marcus Carr, declared for the NBA draft. Top assistant Rob Jeter left to become the head coach at Western Illinois. Two guys graduated, then two transferred out, then three transferred in. Also, the entire college basketball season was (is?) in jeopardy.

Yet as Gophers prepare to tip off amid said uncertainty, many familiar storylines remain: a starting lineup full of new faces; a potential-filled recruiting class headed by the son of an NBA all-star; Richard Pitino coaching from the hot seat; and, above all, Minnesota seeking to bounce back after a disappointing year.

Here are the five questions that will define the season:

1. How do they handle life without Daniel Oturu?

The Woodbury native exploded last year, going from a talented-but-raw freshman to one of the country’s most productive players as a sophomore. He capitalized on that success to become the first Gopher drafted since Kris Humphries in 2004, leaving 20 points, 11 rebounds, and a defensive presence in the middle to be replaced.

Enter Liam Robbins, a 7-foot transfer from Drake who scouts think has NBA potential. The Iowa native was granted immediate eligibility – his uncle is Gophers’ assistant Ed Conroy – and slots in at the five. After not playing much as a freshman, Robbins averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks a game last year, winning the Missouri Valley Conference’s most improved player award and placing on both the all-conference second team and all-defensive team. 

This year, he’s on the list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation’s top center, and for good reason: Robbins is a bruiser in the post who has the touch to step out and hit a 15-foot jumper, and he’s among college basketball’s better shot-blockers on the other end. The big unknown, of course, is how he adjusts from the MVC to the country’s most physical conference.

Just as Oturu was able to take over for Jordan Murphy, Robbins will attempt to take over for Oturu. His ability to do so will go a long way towards the Gophers’ success.

2. How good can Marcus Carr be?

After testing the draft waters, Carr announced he was returning for his junior season and was promptly named to the preseason all-Big Ten team and put on the Naismith Trophy watch list for college basketball’s top player. Like Oturu, Carr was incredibly productive last year, averaging 15.4 points, 6.7 assists, and 5.3 rebounds while scoring in double-figures 22 times and setting the school record for assists.

Carr’s productivity makes him a valuable player even when he isn’t shooting well, but when he is – 35 points on 12/17 shooting versus Ohio State, 27 on 7-17 versus Penn State, 24 on 8-16 versus Clemson – Minnesota is truly tough to beat, going 7-1 in games he shot over 50%, the one blemish a two-point loss in Madison. After an inconsistent start Carr found his stroke in Big Ten play, shooting 43% from the field and 38% from three against overall averages of 41% and 36%, and hitting a blistering 45% from three over the final month of the season. Can he do something close to that over the course of a full season?

Last year I wrote that the team would ultimately go as far as Carr carried them, and there’s no reason to think that won’t also be the case this year. Without Oturu, we’ll really get to see what he can do. Spoiler: he could be the best point guard in Gophers’ history.

3. How will the team incorporate new talent?

After years of veiled attempts to play fast, the Gophers went all-out last year, going from the bottom of the Big Ten in three-point attempts at 554 in 2018-19 to the top of the conference at a 762, averaging a whopping 25 threes a night. This played to the strength of new starters Payton Willis, a sharpshooting guard, and Alihan Demir, who seemed content to hang on the perimeter.

Willis and Demir have been replaced by two talented transfers: Austin, MN native Both Gach (Utah) and grad transfer Brandon Johnson (Western Michigan). At 6-6 Gach is a fluid scorer who can turn a rebound into a fast break and beat smaller guys off the dribble, and though he averaged 4.4 attempts from deep last year, threes are not the prime focus of his game (he shot just 25%). 

Johnson is a 6-8 forward who’s seen his production increase in three successive years – a welcome sign for a team where power forward was a notable spot of weakness – averaging 15 and 8 last year on just 66 threes, less than one-fifth of his field-goal attempts. By comparison, nearly 75% of Willis’ shots and more than a quarter of Demir’s came from distance. Robbins attempted just 41 threes, making 10. 

Now, that’s not to say Gach or Johnson can’t shoot from deep, or won’t, and the Gophers certainly won’t be scared off the three-point line. But from a thousand-yard view we should see less run-and-gun offense, and with that a smaller dependency on made threes which, as last year’s team proved, are far from a sure thing.

There might be an unlikely benefactor to that: Gabe Kalscheur, who for my money is the x-factor. 

Minnesota was 10-6 when he scored in double-figures and 9-4 when he made three or more threes. Kalscheur went from five attempts from deep as a freshman to more than seven last year and saw his three-point percentage drop from 41% to 34%, admitting at the end of the year his struggles were compounded by the shots not falling. 

Sophomore slumps are far from rare, and it seems counterintuitive that an emphasis on three-point shooting would hurt someone with as good a stroke as Kalscheur. That said, he was not nearly the player last year his talent says he should be, and a shift in the direction of the offense might help him, and in turn the team.

4. How productive will the bench be?

To put it mildly, the Gophers’ bench last year was not very productive. Part of that was due to new faces and unestablished roles, but the other part was that the bench simply wasn’t very deep nor good. This led to heavy minutes for the starters, with Carr pacing the conference at a ridiculous 37 minutes per game, and Oturu (34), Kalscheur (33), and Willis (30) also cracking the leaderboard. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they got tired toward the end of games – noticeably Carr, who often ran the offense without any rest – and struggled accordingly.

That shouldn’t be the case this year. Uber-talented sophomore Isaiah Ihnen, a 6-9 power forward who shot 38% from three, should see heavy minutes after battling injuries early last season, and he’ll be the favorite to be the team’s breakout player. He’s joined in the frontcourt by Eric Curry, recently cleared to play after missing all of the 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons with injuries. While it’s unlikely Curry will see the 20 minutes a night he saw as a freshman in 2016-17, he remains a 6-9 big with the talent to be effective at both ends. The high-energy, high-flying Jarvis Omersa is perhaps in line for an increased workload as a junior as well.

The backcourt is headlined by freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr., a four-star recruit and volume scorer. Mashburn’s job will be to spell Carr, and if he can do that effectively the consequences will be exponential. He’ll share the floor with sophomore Tre’ Williams, often times the only bench offense last year, who should be better-adjusted after spending a year playing in the conference.

5. How does the team gel?

This is perhaps the biggest question. Last year Minnesota blew eight second-half leads, displaying lacking cohesion and leaving players ominously hinting at agitation in postgame remarks. The roster is overhauled, but a team losing half its rotation means a significant adjustment period. How Robbins, Gach, and Johnson are able to fit in with Carr, Kalscheur, Ihnen, and co. will define the season, and perhaps the next few seasons, too. 

On paper, adding three double-digit scorers sounds excellent; in reality, incorporating three talented players who need the ball in their hands isn’t so straightforward. And with immediate eligibility, Robbins, Gach and Johnson will be adapting on the fly, not having been immersing themselves in the program for an extended period of time as transfers generally do. Whether a year spent practicing makes a notable difference is hardly established, but it’s nonetheless a reality.

Of course, the above is true before even mentioning the context of the season. 

Two weeks ago the Gophers were shut down after “multiple positive tests” on the team, per the Star Tribune. How this affects them isn’t fair to speculate on, but the halting of practice leading up to a season opener would not generally be beneficial. How an in-season shutdown would play out – what it might mean for games themselves, never mind the team’s momentum or an unbalanced conference schedule – is a complete unknown, and how a coaching staff in need of results factors into that is anyone’s guess. 

In the meantime, they’ll be playing in front of few if any fans, something seemingly not a boost to a team that tends to play much better at home, though perhaps a benefit to a starting lineup with three guys who haven’t played in the Big Ten.

And yet, with all of that said, the Gophers are in a position to compete in the nation’s deepest conference. The starting five, from 1-5, is more talented than last year’s, and the team is significantly deeper from 1-10. The offense should be more balanced and efficient, and the defense – with a lengthier, more athletic Gach on the wing paired with the excellent Kalscheur and a more physical Johnson and Robbins down low – should be improved. 

March is a long way away, and Minnesota was picked to finish 11th in the conference pre-season poll, but don’t be surprised to see them in the running to return to the NCAA tournament. And after the last 12 months, that’s all we can ask for.

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