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What to watch for when the Gophers open the season against Cleveland State

Things might look a lot different this season.

Tuesday night the Minnesota Golden Gophers tip off the 2019-2010 season, hosting the Cleveland State Vikings at the Barn. Coming off of Richard Pitino’s first NCAA tournament win, the Gophers lost the majority of their rotation and were picked to finish twelfth in the Big Ten.

After wins in scrimmages against Iowa State and Southwest Minnesota State, Tuesday represents a chance to officially flip the narrative. The Vikings, who made headlines in 2009 knocking off Wake Forest as a 13-seed in the NCAA tournament, have won just 40 games over the past four seasons and were picked to finish last in the Horizon League.

Here are the three things to watch for:

Barrage of threes and offensive flow

It’s among the biggest question marks for every team, every year, but is nonetheless this year’s defining theme for the Gophers: how will the offense look? The answer falls primarily on the shoulders of Marcus Carr, the 6-2 Pittsburgh transfer recently named a team captain. 

Billed as a true point guard who can both run an offense and create his own offense, the Gophers will likely go as Carr goes. The sets might not be too crazy on opening night, but watch how freely Pitino – who came to the U promoting a faster pace – lets him play and how aggressive he is looking for his own shot.

Relatedly, keep an eye on the shooting (duh). Most obvious is who will put up the most shots with starters Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer all gone. The likely beneficiaries are returning starters Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur, plus Carr. 

But the real question will be what type of shots they put up. Last year, the Gophers averaged just 16 three-point attempts per game and made just 191 total, both last in the Big Ten and 319th and 325th, respectively, out of 353 Division I teams. 

In the scrimmages they upped that to 24.5 per game, with guard Payton Willis, a Vanderbilt transfer, himself 6-of-13 from downtown. Kalscheur, Willis, Carr, and 6'9'' Drexel grad transfer Alihan Demir can all let it fly, so be ready for the barrage to continue. 

One final note: The Gophers shot just 68% from the free-throw line last season. Against Iowa State they were 19-of-23, but against Southwest Minnesota State dropped to 11-of-24. Which is the more accurate window? The answer will likely decide a few games this year.

Who plays big minutes?

With just four returning players – Oturu, Kalscheur, Michael Hurt, and Jarvis Omersa – and just two who saw significant minutes on the roster back, the Gophers will be putting out roughly an entire new rotation. 

Pitino leaned heavily on the starters in the scrimmages, with Carr, Kalscheur, Willis, and Oturu all averaging over 27 minutes per game and the three wings going over 29, though these were a bit inflated with the Iowa State scrimmage going into overtime. 

Even so, the lack of returning contributors means a lot of court time to go around, and the two scrimmages saw ten players log double-digit minutes, with the four aforementioned starters, Demir, Omersa, Hurt, and freshman Tre’ Williams all getting at least 20 in one of them.

The rotation won’t be as tight in the opener as it will during Big Ten play, but it will likely be tighter than it has thus far, so it will be noteworthy to see both who plays, and who plays together. 

More questions that will start being answered

– Will Demir, an all-Colonial Conference player for Drexel who has seen by far the least action of the starters, have a larger role? 

– Tre’ Williams doubled his playing time from games one to two – which was the outlier?

– Can Carr and Willis both handle the ball? Accordingly, will freshman Bryan Greenlee get significant minutes backing up Carr or just spot duty? 

– If one of the bigs gets into foul trouble, just how into small-ball is Pitino willing to go? 

– And potentially very important, the Gophers’ top-rated freshman Isaiah Ihnen, a 6'9'' forward from Germany with the ability to stretch the floor, missed last week’s exhibition with a wrist injury. There’s no word yet on the extent of his injury, so it’s something to keep an eye on.

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