The 2017-2018 Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s basketball team is going to be a fun one to watch. The squad returns all five starters, brings on two promising freshman in Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris, and even adds a transfer coming off of an injury at a position of need in Davonte Fitzgerald.
However, as it so often happens in the realm of Golden Gopher athletics, this seemingly wonderful season received some unfortunate news before the preseason even started. Hours before their football counterparts kicked off the season against Buffalo, news came out that sophomore forward Eric Curry had seriously injured his left knee and would miss the entire 2017-2018 season.
#Gophers soph Eric Curry will miss the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL, MCL & meniscus left knee, per team. He was a backup center & PF— Marcus R. Fuller (@Marcus_R_Fuller) August 31, 2017
The promising sophomore forward recruited out of the state of Arkansas had put together a very underrated freshman season for the Golden Gophers during their surprise run in 2016-2017. He played in 49% of available minutes while logging respectable rebounding numbers, including a 18.4% defensive rebounding percentage and a useful 8.5% offensive rebounding percentage. He was a player who could be counted on for quality minutes when Reggie Lynch inevitably found himself in foul trouble. Unlike a lot of freshman thrown into the fires of the brutal Big Ten, Curry wasn’t a defensive liability. In fact, he ranked 5th on the team in defensive rating and defensive win shares in conference play.
Simply put, Eric Curry was an important piece to the success the Gophers had in 2016-2017. Take into further account that he was coming into his sophomore season, where a lot of college players “make the leap” and the fact that every account from media members, coaches, and fellow teammates said Curry had had a fantastic off season and it’s easy to see that the injury will hurt the Gophers.
Let’s examine a couple ways that this injury will change the dynamic of the roster and the season.
The Gophers’ front court depth will be tested
Obvious statement is obvious but with Curry going down, the front court becomes almost alarmingly thin. While Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch are both fantastic players coming off of strong seasons, foul trouble and small (or possibly large) injuries are inevitable during the rigors of the college basketball season. You can’t simply assume that having those two high quality guys will carry you through the whole schedule.
Senior center Bakary Konate should expect to receive more than just the 22% of minutes he saw last season. While Konate has been the subject of much criticism from all sides, he is a reasonably serviceable backup as long as he is not over exposed by too many minutes. The injury to Curry will test Konate’s mettle and his ability to provide both a little more quality and little more quantity as it pertains to the minutes he contributes this season. But Konate doesn’t even play the same position as Curry.
While Curry was flexible enough to satisfy the center position in a pinch, he primarily lined up as the four backing up Jordan Murphy. The only other player left on the roster who could feasibly play the power forward position are the aforementioned Fitzgerald and little used junior forward/center Gaston Diehdiou. It’s hard to predict what kind of impact Fitzgerald will have on this team because he hasn’t played high-level college basketball in almost three years after transferring from Texas A & M and tearing his ACL right before the beginning of last season. As for Diedhiou, it’s been fairly evident when he has set foot on the floor that he would only be used in emergencies. But he may be thrust into more playing time than Coach Richard Pitino and Gopher fans are comfortable with if foul trouble and in-season injuries are more bountiful than hoped.
The Gophers’ defense may suffer
Thanks to the transformational play of Reggie Lynch on the defensive end last season, the Gophers ranked 2nd in the nation in block percentage last season. Curry was a key part of this effort, ranking third on the team in block percentage and often doing the little things that go unnoticed in the box score as it pertains to defense. He certainly performed at a level that was surprising for a freshman during his first Big Ten season. His athleticism and ability to switch on screens on the perimeter will be missed along with the general stabilizing effects he had on the bench unit’s defense when Lynch found himself on the bench for either a rest or because of foul trouble.
Of all the players on the Gophers’ roster who are listed as a forwards or centers, Curry was the most versatile. He has a length advantage on Jordan Murphy, a weight advantage on fellow sophomore Michael Hurt, and an quickness advantage on Lynch, Konate, and Diedhiou. While this strays into the realm of subjectivity, Curry might have been the most versatile player on the roster, especially in a defensive context.
All hope is not lost
Overall, the news of Eric Curry’s injury was definitely one with long-reaching negative consequences on the 2017-2018 season. He is great talent with ample athleticism, sound defensive abilities, and a developing offensive game. A 70% free throw percentage bodes well for his shooting touch and the projectability of his offensive future. There’s no doubt he was developing his long-range shooting during this past off season and many expected big things for him this year.
On the other hand, Curry garnered the 7th most minutes on the squad last year so this isn’t like, say, losing Nate Mason, who played a whooping 84.5% of available minutes last year. While Curry’s talent is undeniable, this unfortunate news doesn’t limit the Gophers in the same way Trevor Mbakwe’s ACL tear did at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season. The lack of front court depth might hinder the Gophers’ ultimate ceiling as it pertains to the top of the Big Ten standings and a deep run in March, but it won’t stop them from being an overall quality team and making the NCAA Tournament.