Somehow, someway, the Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s basketball regular season starts in only 22 days. Let’s take a high level glance at what to expect as a follow up to one of the most dismal seasons in Gopher history.
Unfortunately for the basketball Gopher faithful, the 2015-2016 basketball season was one of the worst (if not THE worst) season(s) in Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s basketball history. Not only was the on-court product generally hideous but the cherry on top of the Gopher’s “sundae of suck” was a highly publicized and embarrassing Kevin Dorsey video tweet. This tweet led to the suspension of three starters, left the team with no scholarship guards, and allowed the season to bottom out by losing to the historically terrible basketball program from Rutgers by 23 points. There is not enough Listerine in the world to wash out the terrible taste the 2015-2016 season left in the fanbase’s collective mouth.
Off Court Pre-Season Context
In order to understand the quickly approaching season, the aforementioned foundation and current context is necessary to paint the whole picture. It’s important to point out that Minnesota recently brought in new athletic director, Mark Coyle, on May 11th, 2016. Another important piece of context is that Head Coach Richard Pitino is entering his fourth season as the leader of the men’s basketball program without an NCAA Tournament bid to his credit He has also seen his number of conference victories go from 8 to 6 to 2. These things are important to consider when thinking about if Pitino is, “coaching for his job.” Last time Minnesota hired a new AD, a coach was fired after making the third (AKA second) round of the NCAA Tournament. If Coyle feels the desire to “put his stamp” on the basketball program like Norwood Teague did, Pitino might need a minor miracle to salvage his job this season.
On Court Pre-Season Context
Additionally, the roster has seen a bit of an overhaul with the additions of Milwaukee graduate transfer guard Akeem Springs, Illinois State transfer center Reggie Lynch, and a slew of talented freshman including guard Amir Coffey, and forwards Michael Hurt and Eric Curry.
Meanwhile, point guard Kevin Dorsey left amid the Twitter sex-video scandal to play at Colorado State, guard Carlos Morris was kicked off the team near the end of last season, forward Joey King is no longer with the team due the exhaustion of his collegiate eligibility, forward Charles Buggs transferred from the program, and most unfortunately, Texas A&M transfer forward Davonte Fitzgerald will not be able to play this season due to a torn ACL.
While few fans will shed tears over the departures of Morris, Buggs, and King, it’s never a good thing when an already horrid shooting team loses their two best three-point shooters, by percentage, in the form of King and Morris. The lack of potent outside shooters plagued the Gophers for much of the last two seasons and will most likely manifest itself again unless drastic improvement is seen.
With all these things in mind, it’s finally time to ask the question:
What the heck do we expect out of the 2016-2017 Gophers?!?!
In simplified terms, the Gophers are losing their back up point guard, starting shooting guard, and a starting forward. They are gaining the most talented recruiting class campus has seen since 2008. Unfortunately, the Big Ten generally isn’t too kind to freshman, even those with top-50 talent as is the case with Amir Coffey. So while the roster has most definitely been upgraded talent-wise, the lack of Big Ten experience might hinder their ability to fully right the program’s ship in just one season’s time.
Back Court Overview
Fortunately, junior point guard Nate Mason returns with an ample amount of experience to lead the team both offensively and defensively. He will probably play along side a myriad of options at shooting guard, including Springs who has been an early stand out in practices, sophomore Dupree McBrayer who showed signs of improvement on both sides of the ball as last season progressed, and nationally ranked recruit and local product freshman Amir Coffey who will look to establish himself as a viable option to start from the very beginning of the season. There is a dearth of depth at the point guard position, mostly from the departure of Dorsey in the off-season, so it will be interesting to see how Coach Pitino attacks that problem when Mason needs a breather.
An encouraging sign in Mason’s development comes from his free throw shooting. Nate was a 61.4% shooter from the charity stripe on 83 attempts his freshman season. He increased this number to 79.6% his sophomore season on 10 more attempts. While his three-point shooting percentage dropped from 38.9% to 30.2% (albeit on 21 more attempts), the increase in free throw percentage is often a strong indication of an improvement in shooting consistency. Another promising sign for Mason is that even though his usage increased by 3.4%, his turnover rate stayed basically the same (10.1% to 10.8%).
The addition of Akeem Springs looks to cure both the outside shooting woes that continue to manifest itself across the roster and provide some leadership among a mostly unproven back court. Springs converted from behind the arc at a very respectable 35.1% and averaged 5.3 rebounds per game from the guard position at Milwaukee during the 2015-2016 season so he should be capable of providing help in multiple aspects.
Furthermore, if Dupree McBrayer can continue to play the defense he showed near the end of last season and improve upon his 25% three-point shooting, he could be a weapon on both sides of the ball. As a freshman, he ranked 10th in the Big Ten in steal percentage which reflects his natural instincts and long wing span. He’ll be an important cog in improving the team defense from a poor 162nd national ranking in KenPom defensive efficiency.
It will be interesting to see how Amir Coffey develops throughout the season. What position will he primarily play? How much playing time will he have earned by conference play? Can he morph himself, based on team needs, into an athletic three-point threat who can also handle the ball and distribute? I have a hunch that he might be starting by the time the calendar hits 2017 but not at guard. Due to very few viable options at the three spot, it’s possible Coffey’s talent could be enough to fill the void left by Devonte Fitzgerald’s injury and roster imbalance.
Lastly, guards Ahmad Gilbert and Stephon Sharp were forced into a lot more playing time at the end of last season than anyone could have ever expected due to suspensions and Morris’ departure from the team. Hopefully that experience will allow Gilbert and Sharp to be more used to the rugged Big Ten in case they are needed to play spot minutes or take over a more important role because of injury. They obviously aren’t as talented as the other guards are the roster but hopefully they are ready if their numbers are called.
Front Court Overview
The front court contains potential, intrigue, and the possibility to be either a strength or a tire fire. First off, sophomore Jordan Murphy was basically the only bright spot from the 2015-2016 season. Combined him with Illinois State transfer center/forward Reggie Lynch, who is recovering from two off-season surgeries, center Bakary Konate, talented freshman forward Eric Curry, and general after-thought forward Gaston Diuediou, the front court contains the entire spectrum, from the team’s most impressive player (Murphy) to it’s biggest roster liability (Diedhiou).
Murphy averaged 12.4 points and 7.4 rebounds as a freshman in Big Ten play on a team with few offensive weapons. Those numbers are impressive. He also ranked 6th in the conference in total rebound percentage. However, the issue was he had a difficult time staying out of foul trouble and often found himself going to the bench for the rest of the first half mere minutes into the game due to picking up two quick fouls. If Murphy can improve his defensive footwork and improve his mid-range game, he could be a force to be reckoned with. He wasn’t afraid to let the three-pointer fly either, taking 41 attempts throughout the season. On the chance he can improve upon his 22% conversion rate, he could truly become a multi-threat monster at the power forward position.
A lot of the potential outcomes for the front court are derived from how effective Reggie Lynch can be in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt he was a defensive wrecking ball in the Missouri Valley Conference two years ago where he ranked 3rd in defensive rating, 1st in blocks per game, 1st in block percentage, 1st in defensive box plus/minus, and 9th in total rebounds per game. Since block and rebounding rates are stats that generally transfer well between various levels of competition, if Lynch can stay healthy, he will drastically improve the Gopher defense. This would go a long way towards improving both team defensive rebounding and providing a defensive presence in the post, two things that the team sorely lacked last year.
However, we don’t even know if Lynch will be fully healed from off-season knee surgery when regular season games start so the Gophers may have to rely on junior Bakary Konate for a period of time. Many, including myself, had hoped that Konate would be one of those raw athletes who slowly evolved into an actual basketball player. Unfortunately, this metamorphosis has yet to occur. Although Konate’s 5.1% block percentage ranked 6th in the Big Ten last year, his defensive rating was a poor 108.8. Combine this with a complete lack of any development of an offensive post game explains why Konate was extremely frustrating to watch last season. It’s possible that he may have finally adjusted to the speed of the game after another off-season working on post moves and defensive positioning but he’s considered a complete wildcard, in a negative sense, until proven otherwise.
Conversely, early reports out of practice have labeled Eric Curry as a fast riser on the depth charts and possibly the most impressive player from the 2016 class thus far. He has been tenacious on the boards and full of energy. While it’s hard to garner what effect he will truly have on the proceedings for this season, it will be interesting to see going forward if the advantage of Curry playing behind Jordan Murphy will take pressure off the freshman. It would behoove his development for more minutes to come organically, as oppose to being thrust into an essential role like Murphy was last year.
The last piece of the 2016 class, Michael Hurt could be a bit of an enigma. He lacks the physical size to be a true forward and lacks the quickness to guard the two spot. If he can prove capable of defending the speed of some small forwards and becomes a three-point threat, he will be able to find his niche as a freshman coming off the bench to prove a quick scoring punch. Minnesota desperately needs an outside threat on offense to give the likes of Murphy and Lynch space to operate and Mason space to drive so while he may not get huge minutes, Hurt could prove essential to the Gophers improving upon their atrocious 230th ranking in offensively efficiency from last year.
If Pitino does happen to be coaching for his job this season, the schedule will do him no favors. The Gophers play four major conference teams in the non-conference schedule for what feels like the first time in a century. While it doesn’t contain the likes of Duke or Kentucky, the combination of St. John’s, Arkansas, Florida State, and Vanderbilt isn’t the cake walk the Gophers have generally scheduled in non-conference in years’ past.
In addition to the more challenging foes that await Minnesota in the early part of the season, the conference schedule is going to be drastically different from last year’s reprieve. The home-and-home games on the slate for the Gophers includes pre-season conference favorites Michigan State and Wisconsin, along with Maryland, Ohio State, and Penn State. Road only games are at Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois, and Rutgers while home only games are Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, and Indiana. The problem with these match-ups is that Minnesota will square off against the perceived weaker B1G squads of Rutgers, Nebraska, and Illinois only once. The only “bottom tier” team that the Gophers will face multiple times is Penn State, who just brought in their best recruiting class in generations. While avoiding a trip to the real Assembly Hall is always a good thing, going into West Lafayette against a talented Purdue team for your second conference game on New Year’s Day is not ideal. In short, the conference slate is heavily slanted towards the challenging side this year.
Taking all things into consideration, the 2016-2017 season could see the Gophers struggle once again. Combining the sheer youth of the roster with the unknown that is Richard Pitino’s coaching doesn’t seem like a formula for success. It’s hard to read AD Mark Coyle on his thoughts about the situation but it would seem that a near repeat performance of last year would bring the Pitino Era to an end. However, I don’t see the team only winning two conference games this year. If major injury to key personnel does not occur, I think there is too much talent on this roster to see another two-win struggle.
Reggie Lynch getting back into basketball shape will be the big key. If he can put forth the defensive effort he did at Illinois State, it could drastically change the complexion of this team’s abilities on that side of the floor. Furthermore, if Mason and McBrayer continue to develop the chemistry they showed as a back court at times during the latter part of the conference schedule last season, the outlook becomes a little less ugly. The athleticism of the roster has definitely improved and with experience at both guard positions in the form of Mason and Springs, there are some positives to be gleaned from the dramatic roster turnover that occurred this past off-season.
I’ll go out on a limb and tentatively predict a 10-3 non-conference record and a 7-11 conference record for a total of 17-14 overall. My main reason for this is a perceived improvement on the defensive side of the ball in the form of Lynch, a more talented bench than last year, Springs being a steadying presence on the roster, and the development of Murphy into an all-conference talent.