Last year the Gophers were very fortunate throughout the season in regards to the team health. It wasn’t until the very end of the year when Akeem Springs was lost for the last 2 games of the year after tearing his achilles in the Big Ten Tournament. And then point guard Nate Mason was hobbled for the majority of the team’s NCAA Tournament game against Middle Tennessee State. But for the prior 32 games, the Gophers were mostly healthy and able to go after the Big Ten at full strength.
The Springs injury really highlighted how razor thin that team was. A fully healthy squad and they basically had 2 major contributors off the bench. One in the front court and one in the backcourt. 7 starting caliber players in the rotation and when one was injured, there was a significant dropoff in production.
This year’s team really only saw the loss of Springs in the backcourt while adding 2 quality incoming recruits. More depth and more reliable contributors right? Yes...until Eric Curry tore all of the CLs in his knee (maybe not all of them) and instantly made our frontcourt on dangerously thin ice. But lets take a look at the Gopher roster, projected lineups and key contributors.
PG - Nate Mason - No surprise here as Mason was 1st Team All-Big Ten last year and he is the leader of this team. Mason led the team in minutes last year and was 4th in the Big Ten at 34.5 minutes per game. I expect that number to go down, a little bit. Last year Mason was basically the only point guard available on the roster and when he had to sit it was handled capably by Dupree McBrayer or Amir Coffy playing a little point forward. Now with Isaiah Washington on the roster, a true point guard, Coach Pitino can comfortably sit Mason a few extra minutes. He is arguably our best player, and will be relied upon HEAVILY. But keeping his legs a little fresher will be good for everyone as we get deeper into the season.
SG - Dupree McBrayer - The junior guard took a huge leap in production from his freshman to sophomore season. Improving his 3-point shooting from 25% to 41.6% has a significant boost to the team as it improved from abysmal to a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. McBrayer will start, likely be the first guy to head to the bench before checking back in to play a little SF for Coffey. Basically 28 minutes per game last year and that number may also go down a bit, just due to the fact that we’ve added 2 backcourt players to the rotation this year.
SF - Amir Coffey - the local stud who is primed to breakout in his second year on the team. There is not a lot of depth at the SF position and Coffey is going to be playing a lot again this year. Second on the team last year in minutes at 33.2 and that number is going to be basically the same. If he comes into the season looking to be more aggressive offensively (as he should), then his minutes are going to be invaluable. He’ll play a lot and be even more of a focal point of the offense.
PF - Jordan Murphy - An All-Big Ten caliber forward who is going to start and be playing the majority of minutes at this position. Thus begins the impact of Eric Curry going down for the year. Murphy’s minutes should go up this year after playing just under 28 minutes per game last season. He started slowly last year before really getting back into a groove during the Gopher’s 8-game Big Ten winning streak when Murphy averaged 15.6 points and 12.4 boards per game.
C - Reggie Lynch - Here is where minutes get “interesting.” Lynch was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the biggest catalyst to the Gopher improvement from the debacle that was 2015-16. BUT the problem is that Lynch is far too often in foul trouble, relegating himself to the bench. As a junior, Lynch was on the court for just 23 minutes per game on average. Imagine what damage he would do if he were playing 28-30. If fouls are not an issue, Lynch is on the floor for 30+ minutes per game this year. If and when he gets in foul trouble, he’s on the bench and it become Bakary Konate time. This will be a key throughout the season.
KEY CONTRIBUTORS OFF THE BENCH
Now is when things get interesting.
PG - Isaiah “Jelly” Washington - look for the flashy, 4-star, NYC point guard to be the first off the bench until he potentially earns his way into the starting lineup. I anticipate that Jelly will come in for McBrayer, moving Mason to shooting guard.
F - Davonte Fitzgerald - who is the 7th man will likely depend on the foul situation. But Fitzgerald is the guy who will likely be coming in for Murphy or Coffey. He’ll eased back into playing time, but with Curry out he becomes a guy we are going to rely upon more than expected.
C - Bakary Konate - Again, when you see Konate will largely depend on what Lynch does with the 5 fouls he is allowed. Konate brings the energy and effort, while not being a guy who is going to create or do much scoring. If Lynch is staying out of foul trouble, Konate enters the game much later.
SG - Jamir Harris - Your freshman shooting guard is the guy who gives your backcourt a little bit more depth than you had a year ago. Harris has a mature body and will be a kid who shows some toughness and elite shooting as he gets used to the speed of division 1 basketball.
F - Michael Hurt - We are getting further down the list but don’t sleep on Hurt who will get more minutes this year. And after a year to adjust to the college game, he should be able to contribute more quality minutes at either forward position. A good shooter and savvy basketball player, improved foot-speed and defensive presence is what will earn him more minutes. Averaged nearly 6 min per game as a freshman, mostly in non-conference action. I would imagine around 6-7 min per game again, but more consistently and in most games.
C - Gaston Diedhou - is not going to see many minutes this season barring injury or major foul trouble. As a senior, Diedhou is a guy who should be able to give a few good minutes in a pinch
This starting five is about as good as there is in the country. Are they of the caliber of Duke, Michigan State and the other Final Four contenders? No, but they really aren’t that far off. This starting five is elite. The depth concerns me again, but this team has some versatility and overall should be just fine throughout the long season.
I love the beginning of the season when we are going to learn the new personality of the team and get to see how players have progressed. We’ll get to see the new guys and what they can bring to the table. I’m just glad to have Gopher basketball back. It is my absolute favorite and having a talented team is going to make this team one to remember.