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5 Early Learnings from the Gophers Basketball Season

We’re five games in. What have we learned so far?

University of Minnesota

Okay, let’s pause. Who had the Gophers at 5-0 at this point in the season? I had them at 4-1 and even thought that was optimistic for a team relying so heavily on guys that hadn’t even donned a Minnesota uniform in their career. Yet, here we are. And that includes playing three games against Power 5 conference teams that people have heard of. Impressive.

So, we’re five games in, which is just enough of a sample size to start seeing some trends develop, areas of excitement and elements that need some work. And with four consecutive games yet against teams in the KenPom top 70, the fun isn’t even close to stopping. Let’s take a look.

The freshmen will make an impact

We knew that the Gophers were bringing in a bunch of fresh new faces, including three true freshmen from Minnesota, but really had no idea how much or to what level they would contribute. Any time a true freshman laces up in the Big Ten it’s hard to know how they’ll hold up or what the transition will be like, but for Gabe Kalscheur, Daniel Oturu and Jarvis Omersa, all indications are they will get some serious run, especially Kalscheur and Oturu.

Kalscheur is already making his case to have a bronze statue of himself erected in Stadium Village, averaging 14 ppg, posting ridiculous three-point numbers and hitting a game-winning shot against Washington. But Oturu is already showing himself to be a banger down low and flashing the ability to score near the bucket and grab some serious boards. Omersa is a hustle player at this point, but still getting around 10 minutes a game on the second team. That’s not nothing.

We haven’t seen this crew play against Big Ten competition yet, but they’ve more than held their own against P5 opponents so far and have made up 31.5% of the teams scoring. So far that’s been a tremendous boon to the core of Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer.

Isaiah Washington still needs some seasoning

Is there a more polarizing player than Washington at this point? He’ll look lost for entire games before flashing the potential that made him such a highly-prized recruit. Objectively, he still has a long way to go in becoming a reliable point guard in the Big Ten, and makes entirely too many mistakes to have gained much trust by the coaching staff. That’s reflected in his erratic minutes (he played only seven against Santa Clara). More often than not he’s playing out of control, forcing bad shots and not finishing plays. It can be hard to watch.

On the other hand, you see him get out in transition where he stops thinking and instinct takes over. And that’s where he starts to shine. He was very helpful in the comeback against Washington when Pitino had them pushing an up-tempo pace and was putting his teammates in position to succeed. But the warts still show when he has to manufacture plays in a half court set.

The Gophers need a strong, reliable point guard and Washington isn’t that person quite yet. But with the position currently lacking depth he won’t be going away. Maybe it’s a matter of looking to be a facilitator instead of a scorer for the time being? Either way, we need him to play big minutes and that’s currently not happening.

Richard Pitino knows how to make adjustments

During the first half of the Washington game it looked like the Gophers may never score again. They’d come to a grinding halt against the Huskies vaunted zone defense, and hadn’t made a bucket in more than seven minutes. It was brutal and hard to watch. You had to wonder, would there be any halftime adjustments?

Well, it just so happened there were. And after scoring just 20 points in the first half, Minnesota exploded for 48 in the second against the exact same defense, culminating in a thrilling victory and the team winning its fifth straight game. That type of adjustment isn’t just the team playing better on its own; that comes from the top. And it wasn’t the first time this season that Richard Pitino has shown he can adjust at halftime to turn games around. Against Utah, the team looked entirely different in the second half from an offensive standpoint. Ditto for Santa Clara.

Remember, it was only two years ago that Pitino was the B1G Coach of the Year and made a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament. Last year aside (I refuse to use that a measuring stick), he has a big opportunity to cement himself as a coach that knows what he’s doing this year. And I’m 100% rooting for him.

The Gophers have a high game-by-game floor

This occurred to me during the Santa Clara game, where a clearly inferior team was hanging around and the Gophers simply couldn’t score, but the Gophers have a very solid foundation to work with on any given game, which gives them a fairly large margin for error.

Consider that they have a core of three reliable upperclassmen in Murphy, Coffey and McBrayer. Guys who you know will be there to execute. Okay, maybe not McBrayer ALL THE TIME, but you get the idea. Throw in solid and spectacular debuts from Kalscheur and Oturu and you already have a team of five players that can beat any team on any given night. That’s a lot to work with, and we don’t even have Eric Curry back.

My point is that even when things are going wrong, the team is working from a highly effective status quo that can beat many teams just by playing the game, getting to the line, and making stops, even when the shots aren’t falling. Amir Coffey is a great example. He hasn’t looked like his best self this year, and is still averaging a career high in scoring. That’s not nothing.

Will they win every game this year? No way. But we all saw last year the stark difference in how having “talent” on the floor changes the game, and are already seeing that so far this year.

There is still a ways to go

Has it been all rose petals and rainbows this year? No way. Coffey has been inconsistent, free throw shooting has been a problem, Oturu is fouling way too much, Washington is in player purgatory and McBrayer has forgotten how to shoot. The offensive lulls against Santa Clara and Washington were horrifying, and it’s not that far of a leap to see Big Ten opponents play the zone defense card and really throw these guys through a loop.

But, to be fair, 5-0 doesn’t happen by accident, and it certainly beats the alternative. Color me deeply intrigued. They may even be ranked in the Top 25 in the next couple weeks. God help us all.

What else you got?